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The Song of a Classroom: How music is just like good teaching

September 4, 2010

I started playing guitar around the time I dropped my music major. Well, play is a generous word. I’ll say strum. I started strumming the guitar about 10 years ago. I have a repertoire of 8 or 9 chords – enough for me to play a few songs. I often slip into my acoustical trance on late afternoons and Saturday mornings (and other times I find myself alone in an empty apartment). It satisfies this corner of my heart that is unquenched by the other things I love like people or teaching or sunsets or shores.

While playing this morning, I couldn’t help but be mindful of students I will be teaching in a few days. Every year, something happens to my heart about 2 weeks before students come. I either get hyper-tender hearted or I turn everything that happens into something about teaching.  I’ve realized it’s my teacher version of nesting, preparing the heart and mind space for the little people that are about to inhabit it.

Today, it’s a little of both.  And because it’s a gorgeous Labor Day weekend and because I should be putting my writing energy into something  I actually need to write,  I’ll go fast. Here are this morning’s random thoughts:

1. After strumming (playing all 6 strings at once) for many years, I’ve just started refining my “plucking” skills. The difference is heavenly -it’s where the heart comes in… a baseline of beautiful melodies with tiny voices singing in and out. Each string plays a part that achieves a sweet spot where each voice is capitalizing on the other. Rather than being dictated by the strum, the melody is now transferred to the individuals.  THEY carry it.

This is teaching. The “strumming” is insufficient at BEST. But when each student is recognized and is given the opportunity to learn and do and BE according to their own strengths, it is heavenly. In the “plucking” classroom, students learn that while each one is different and plays a different role, they are all needed… better together as individuals than together as the same note …and obviously better together than apart.      I could sit in this analogy forever.

2. To understand this next part, you don’t need to be musically gifted. You just need to be able to whistle. Whistle. (yes, do it.  right now.) As you continue to whistle, move your tongue back and forth from the front of your mouth (where the air is coming out) to the back of your mouth. Back and forth. You hear that? You are changing the pitch of the note.  That’s what happens when you tune an instrument. You find the right pitch for each note- and the instrument is in tune so that it can be a part of a community of notes.

When just 1 of the 6 strings of the guitar is out of tune, it’s off.  Off in a way that resembles having a bad taste in your mouth. And no matter how GORGEOUSLY in tune the other 5 strings are, it doesn’t matter because the chord is ruined. It’s not what it’s meant to be.      (Aw, let’s just pause for a moment envisioning that kid who comes in who is having an awful day. ) 😦     When there is dissonance in a chord, a musician’s attention goes directly to the ailing note. You determine what is making it out of tune. It is an outside force? Is your finger in the wrong place? Or does the actual string need some attention and care?

As we start the year, let’s always remember that our classrooms are these beautiful melodies and songs and chords. And if one tiny person is off, we feel it. We need to inquire and restore and love.We also need to be ready to turn our eyes to ourselves. What have we done/not done that may be affecting the whole?

Then we do what we must to restore the beauty.

3. I’d love to take the time here to talk a little about how dissonance can only be discovered in the context of community, but I think that may take another post.

In the mean time, I wish all of you teachers a most glorious new beginning. I hope your community grows into one of BEAUTIFUL MELODIES.


Moving Kids (and our Teaching) Along a Trajectory of Non-Fiction Goodness

August 30, 2010

The Glorious Strands of Non Fiction

(Most of this information comes from workshops led by Cory Gillette and the TCRWP. Thank you, Cory!!)

This past season has been one of great strides in the teaching of Fiction. The research on Bands of Text Difficulty changed my life as a teacher. Small group work (and my own clarity) has never been more consistent and effective (and JOYFUL) as it was this year. I believe it’s because we are really starting to understand the nuances of teaching students through Fiction. My brilliant heroes at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project have worked hard this year trying to do the same for Non-Fiction. Finding similarities among levels in Non-Fiction books, however, proved to be much more difficult. The answer was not in BANDS, rather in STRANDS, predictable patterns of increased difficulty. There are three: Elaboration, Vocabulary, and Main Idea.

Students spend the majority of their time in 1st and 2nd grades reading Non-Fiction. They LOVE it. Yet as they enter the upper grades, the love affair ends. Reading NF (for some) becomes a point of dread and anxiety. I honestly believe this new work may alleviate that and bring the joy back to Non-fiction.

Predictable problems in Non Fiction:

Students take the stance as detail holders, memorizing details as little facts and  miss the big idea (often drowning in anxiety).

The GOAL is to get the big idea. We as non-fiction readers need to SYNTHESIZE. To constantly move in and out from tiny details to BIG IDEA.

In lower level non-fiction texts, the BIG IDEA is obvious. (For example, the big idea is often given as 1 sentence on 1 page: Sharks are dangerous.) As texts become more complicated, ideas become embedded in more elaborate details. The reader is expected to dig through the information to find or infer the bigger idea. As texts get harder, we have to keep caring about the BIG IDEA.

So our task then is to help students become able to deal with more difficult texts. (And maybe re-evaluate what we expect from them along the way. We don’t want them to read like researchers, collecting every tiny fact… we want them to synthesize!)

In order to understand HOW non-fiction texts get harder, it helps to think of strands of text difficulty. According to the brilliant comrades at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Non-fiction text difficulty can be broken down into 3 major strands:

  1. Elaboration
  2. Tricky Words
  3. Determining Main Idea
Elaboration Tricky Words Determining Main Idea

More Difficult




Main Idea is obvious and written on the page Text is in small chunks. Ex: 1 Sentence: Sharks are dangerous.

Size of chunks increase (paragraphs).

Main Idea is inferred from more words. (Here we need to teach what’s most important. The reader has to be able to let go of detail to get to the main idea.)

Certain words in NF carry weight:

-this, that, these, those, for example

We must notice and determine extraneous details

Words are defined plus text feature support:

In lower level texts, new vocabulary is often taught with a picture, caption, title, and text. The meaning is obvious.

Later, the author assumes you are brining a certain amount of knowledge to the text and you must look further to find the meaning of the word.

In more difficult texts, the reader has to be even more flexible. Vocabulary shifts; it may become more figurative.

Readers must expect synonyms. Vocabulary could be defined 1 way and referred to in another. Ex: Station/Depot/Terminal

Main Idea is directly stated with support of features.

Main Idea is stated without support of features. (As texts become increasingly more difficult, notice that features stop being retells and more ENHANCEMENTS. It may not have anything to do with Main Idea.)

Main Idea becomes implied.

There may be more than 1 main idea.

The title becomes less literal and more figurative. Readers now need to read to figure out the meaning of the title, not the other way around.

It is helpful to tackle this work by taking on certain identities or STANCES as a reader. We are readers who. . . _______________________ as we read.

Introducing Strands

We need to teach students how to move through strands by showing them the work with will be doing. For example, you could say, “ Look! You were reading books like this…. (point out pages from text). Now, you’re reading stuff like this… (point out pages from text). So now, you have to be a reader who…”


The goal in NF is to interact with and make sense of the text. In expository text, you don’t have personal connection with text, so we need to give kids opportunities to interract with the text.

The way to make meaning and gain knowledge through NF is to merge YOUR thinking with the content. Readers need to work, play with, mess around with, and manipulate facts.

Three big ways to Synthesize

  1. Make a comparison
  2. Have an inference (often a trait)
  3. Form a judgement

Comparison is the most common. Kids can use their past knowledge to form a connection to the subject or idea. Ex: Sharks teeth are like puppy teeth … because… Camel humps are like pantries…because…

Inferring means that we might watch the subject like we’d watch a character.

*It’s important to remember that the assignment is to Synthesize, not to compare, judge, or infer. The reader needs to determine what works for her. (It’s a compare OR judge OR infer kind of thing.)

Comprehension is NOT about memorizing facts. It’s about interacting. Use whatever you need to glue the bigger parts of the text together. Play! mess around with! manipulate!!  I truly believe doing this will help us discover the joy in Non Fiction again!

Oh, How we Love our Charts!

August 24, 2010

Buried in my philosophy of education among the pleas for social justice and renewing the world is this simple fact: Teaching is SO MUCH FUN.

It’s fun for a million reasons but one of those is that I get to make charts. There is nothing like ripping open a brand new box of sharpie bold point flip chart markers and going to town on a teaching point. Perhaps it’s the creation and creativity (or therapy) of it all, but chart-making, for me, ranks up there with decorating a classroom. After all, they serve such vital purposes WHILE making the environment beautiful!

Charts are an interesting beast. When visitors come into my classroom , it’s the charts that get the most attention. I’ve seen people copy and take pictures of the most random charts. (And I do the same thing when I visit others’ classrooms!) It’s funny, right?  So what’s the deal with the chart?

Two weeks ago, Majorie Martinelli gave a talk on this very issue. Here are some key points I loved.

CHARTS..they aren’t just for wallpaper.         Closing Talk by M.Martinelli


Routine: What to do when…
Strategy: Today you can do… OR….
Procedures:  “How to”
What makes a memorable chart?
1. Visuals (pictures, stick figures.)
2. Headings
3. Point to the chart often. “They’ll use it as much as you touch it.”
4. Decide which  charts to keep, retire, pull out when needed…
I loved Marjorie’s words about charts. Naming what makes a chart memorable was KEY. As I reflect on the charts my kids actually used, I realize they were CLEAR, SIMPLE, and USED OFTEN!   A powerful moment for me was watching my students look up to places on the walls where charts used to be as they talked to their partner or used “sparkling words.” This was how I knew they were worth making. I tried to use charts in Read Alouds and Mini Lessons as much as I could. And when I felt like the information on the charts had merged with their thinking, it came down.
Thanks to my dear literacy coach, this year I was able to have more of a structure to my chart madness. Each part of the wall/room held certain types of charts. For example, the front of the room held Partner Language, Helping Words, and Sparkling Words (synonyms for boring words like “nice” or “good”). The left wall was for the current writing unit, the right wall for the current reading unit, and a separate space for “all year” charts. This made it SO much easier to keep up with, rotate, and refer to.
I’ve included some charts I found at the end of the year. These poor charts didn’t make it into my unit binders, but I feel like I will want to revise them or use them in some capacity in the future.

Inquiry Circles… “because 1st Graders can Change the World!”

August 23, 2010

Stephanie Harvey and Cory Gillette recently rocked my NF reading world and I am excited to say I have typed a teensy portion of this brilliance up. Go to town, teachers. All five of you who read this. 🙂    More to follow. Just wait ’till you read about the Strands.. oh, the lovely Strands.

CLICK HERE Stephanie Harvey Inquiry Circles Note: These notes cover the beginning stages of the Inq. Circles. More info to come as I read/learn/ think through how the process may unfold.

I worked for 7 hours in my new classroom today and I think I’m getting sick and maybe delirious… but you should know these strands are gonna change your life. Get ready.

Goodnight,  friends.

Saying Goodbye to a Classroom is TOUGH!

August 12, 2010

I couldn’t have picked a more boring title for this piece.  I love teaching Essay- and this would not make it past any revision stage in our classroom. And yet it is the title I’ve chosen. It’s simple and true. It is TOUGH to leave a place where your heart has latched onto for 4 years. It is TOUGH to leave a classroom.

Thankfully, writing has been a dear friend through this transition. That for Which There are No Words, In Beauty it is Finished, and Saying Goodbye with Poetry were my public attempts at dealing with leaving. And yet. Here I am again, discovering more tears in the hidden places.

I know I’m on the more sensitive end of the spectrum, but I assume this feeling is natural and common among other teachers. (I’ve said goodbye to 2 others classrooms, but only after a year.  This one is different. This one has been home. )

Again, I turn to writing to help me heal… and this time, I’ve added pictures. Rather than seeing it as all CHANGE and LOSS, I want to see it as a story. A story of love, growth, and maybe even some redemption.

4 years ago, I walked into Room 317, my first New York classroom.

My Library in 2006

And then I tried to put my stamp on it… Tried to bring a little Lindsay to the Bronx.  I soon learned that 6th graders would not *want* to sit on the floor, even if I DID have shaggy red carpets.  And having a few bean bag chairs and 32 students required thinking ahead. We used chairs for 3 years instead. (In 2009, sitting (on the floor) in the meeting area was just how we did things. No one asked questions. )

My 1st meeting area as a "real" workshop teacher.

Over the years, room 317 grew.. and so did my teaching.

Writing Celebration 2006

I fell in love with The Bronx and the kids who live there.

Last day of school 2006

We had a lot of fun, too.

When asked, "Why do you need 30 extra minutes on that field trip, Ms. Reyes?" I said it was for reflection and independent outdoor reading. What I meant was this.

My students taught me how to teach. As I grew, so did the environment…

I read Georgia Heard and Katherine Bomer. Then, this happened.

And the library… well, it grew too. This is 1/3 of it.

But as things grow, they also change. It was time to move on from the place where I grew up as a teacher. Certain dreams came true in this room. It’s where I learned from heroes.. where I laughed, cried… Where I stumbled toward the person I want to be and learned more about kids and literacy than I could have imagined.

This week, I said goodbye to Room 317.

I thought I had done my last bit of grieving but it was clear as I stood paralyzed in a familiar spot that I hadn’t. There was nothing left to do. So I walked around 1 last time. I thanked God for the last 4 years and even prayed that peace and beauty would remain a tangible thing in this room…this school; that it would defeat any darkness that tried to invade (because it will) and I then I stood there in the silence.

I stood looking at this for a long time. I cried slow tears that were satisfying and complete. I was ready.


There was only 1 thing left to do. I looked one last time, took the deepest breath I could,  and shut my door.

Epilogue:  In my mind, what I’ll always see is this:

“If you are a dreamer,come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean-buyer. If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire, for we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!” -Shel Silverstein

What Would Happen?

August 2, 2010

I cried over this today:

It is an excerpt from The Help by Kathryn Stockett. In this scene Aibileen is watching over Mae Mobley, the baby girl she is raising for a white family in Jackson, Mississippi. Of the 17 children she’s raised for other families, she’s especially smitten with Mae Mobley.

She [Mae] say, “Mae Mo bad.”
The way she say it, like it’s a fact, make my insides hurt.
“May Mobley,” I say cause I got a notion to try something.  “You a smart girl?”
She just look at me, like she don’t know.
“You a smart girl,” I say again.
She say, “Mae Mo smart.”
I say, “You a kind little girl?”She just look at me. She two years. She don’t know what she is yet. I say, “You a kind girl,” and she nod, repeat it back to me. . .  That’s when I get to wondering, what would happen if I told her she something good, ever day?

I read this in tears because 1) I am overwhelmed at the sweetness and tenderness of Aibileen 2) I am in awe over her unwillingness to let anything less than love define Mae Mobley’s identity and 3) I am reminded  that THIS is the job of anyone in children’s lives.

Can you imagine what would happen if we told our students they were “something good every day”?

Who are we that we hold the possibility of redemption in our words?

Launching the Classroom Community: Heart meets Structure

July 27, 2010

I can’t imagine being a parent. I can’t imagine what it’s like to wish and dream and hope with fierce passion for a world worthy of your little person’s life.  You do your best to create an environment where she can blossom and wonder and explore. You try to protect her heart and self-esteem…you guide her with love and firmness. But in the end, her independent self  will make decisions. You teach and model empathy. You try your hardest to live a life of compassion and generosity-one worth emulating, knowing that her little, bright eyes are on you at all times. You pour in love and hope that this will overflow from her life to others. And then you watch. You guide. You celebrate.

I’m not a parent, but this is definitely what I feel as a teacher.  I am not naive to believe that I can prescribe a perfect year in the classroom. But it is absolutely my desire (and DELIGHT!) to pour my effort into creating the best possible environment for my kids. One that will help them blossom and wonder and explore. I consider it my job to protect their hearts and self-esteem… to pour love into their little souls so that it can overflow onto others. (All the while, teaching them. Can’t forget about that!)

Thank God, as teachers, we get to start fresh every year. And my slate is clean. So it is with great humility (from failures and shortcomings) and gratitude (for success and lessons learned) that I plan this unit. In my previous post, I said I was going to attempt to create a unit around building the classroom community. After a few days of brainstorming, I finally found a bit of structure to harness my thinking.  I used a UbD template created with colleagues to guide me. My hope is that it describes the KNOWLEDGE, UNDERSTANDING and ACTIONS that my students and I will embrace.

This is only a draft. (An incomplete one, at that.) I imagine it will change a lot before the school year begins, so I welcome any thoughts (advice, questions, etc.) you have as you read this!

Click here to see the actual UbD unit. ( BIGGER FONT!) Classroom Comm UbD

Next steps: Phase 2 and 3  (Lessons, models, evidence, inquiries, etc..) I think it would be really fun to create these with other teachers. 🙂