This week on the Heinemann podcast, how do we create a culture for our classrooms that can last a full school year? Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen, co-authors of Flip Your Writing Workshop and Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, are currently finishing up their third book, due out in spring of 2019. Both Sonja and Dana want to help teachers build learning communities that propel students’ growth as readers, help them view the world through multiple lenses, and skillfully integrate digital resources.
Our conversation starts with setting the right tone for the school year…
Below is a full transcript of our conversation...
Brett: We're at the beginning of the school year, we're in a place where we're starting to think about the whole year. How do we create a tone or culture that will last the full school year and not just the first few weeks of school?
Sonja: I think teachers can really consider how they can establish a positive and productive tone throughout the year in a couple of different ways. One way is through their choices for read-alouds and I think Dana and I have always tried to make deliberate choices around our read-alouds, especially as we get to know our students and so some of those choices are to really help create that culture you were mentioning. And I'm thinking of one text, "Each Kindness," by Jacqueline Woodson, is a great text that really helps students think about what sort of space are we creating together in this classroom? How do we want to treat one another? And another text is a new one by Jacqueline Woodson, actually, "Harbor Me" is another great text to use, specifically with middle school students to create that tone that we want to stretch across the entire school year. And I think digital texts are another choice that teachers can think about and we certainly love using them.
Dana: Mm-hmm (affirmative). One of my favorites is called "Girl's First Ski Jump."
Dana: And it's such a great one. It has a girl who's on the ski jump and she's terrified. She talks to herself a little bit and encourages herself to find that courage to persevere and to take that big jump, that big leap. And that's an easy one to find online to use with your students and really set that great tone at the beginning of the school year.
Dana: That this is a space where we're going to take risks as readers and we're going to take risks as writers and those risks are going to lead to some really great growth across the year. So I think read-alouds and the deliberate choices we make around that are important. And as we continue to get to know our students, this is an opportunity for us to continue to diversify our libraries and I think oftentimes, teachers come in with a set collection of texts that they want to share with students, but we really want to be thinking about ways to expand the cannon, so to speak, so that we are really speaking to the students that are before us, the specific students that are before us and their diverse needs and their unique interests in the classroom.
Brett: Sonja, tell me a little bit about what digital reader's notebooks are?
Sonja: So another way to get to know our students as readers is to invite them to create a digital reader's notebook. And think about the traditional notebooks that students used, they're usually the marble black and white notebooks.
Sonja: Or some teachers give kids a handout with a author, a genre, title, date, and they create a log that they then keep in a binder and can flip to when they want to see what their students are reading. But when we invite students to create a digital reader's notebook, they get to engage with platforms like Padlet or they could even use a Google Doc. And what they're doing is basically creating a wall that squirrels across the entire school year of the texts that they're reading and these are texts that they have read outside of the classroom, that they're reading in the classroom, and the kids can do really cool things with this, such as bring in a cover of the book instead of typing out the title and the author's name. They can include the date that they read it and finished it. They can do the typical things that teachers might ask students to do in their reader's notebooks, they can do on a digital reader in their digital reader's notebooks, such as write a post about a character or a theme or symbolism.
And what happens over the year is that teachers really get to see their students reading identities develop. They'll get to see their students taking risks and reading longer books or different genres than they started reading in September because of the work we've been doing in the classroom that may have been an invitation for them to try fantasy when they've never tried fantasy before. And having it in a digital platform means that it's not only at the teacher's fingertips, but it is at our student's fingertips as well.
Dana: And one of the ways that I love to have my students access these Padlets is by creating a QR code that's personalized for each student alone and then creating a display in the classroom. So if you're using iPads for example, then other students can just go up and scan the QR code and then automatically get to that Padlet and see so many book recommendations and so many thoughtful connections and discussions about books and students can then respond to each other and interact with each other's notebooks. And when you see them develop across the school year, you can't even believe it.
Dana: At the beginning, they're posting maybe about their summer reading, that sort of thing. And then, as they're learning strategies for writing about books and talking about books with their peers, you'll see their entries expand, you'll see them become really creative, take shelfies, you know, when they're holding up the book.
Dana: And it's just great. So by the end of the school year, they have just this huge, huge reader's notebook with all of their thoughts and they can see really how much they've grown as readers.
Sonja: And then we can conference with students and work with them to help them see some patterns in their own digital reader's notebooks, such as, "Oh, you really enjoy reading about strong female characters" or "Social justice issues is something that's really important to you, I can tell by looking across your wall because you've read "The Crazy Man" by Pamela Porter, and you've read "March" and you've read all of these books, so that means that this is something that's important to you." And then, as teachers, we get to make really great, specific recommendations for books as we get to know our students in that way.
Brett: Dana, tell me a little bit more about a tool you like throughout the semester, called "Flipgrid."
Dana: Flipgrid is awesome. It's a vlog, which means it's a blog where students can post video. And the students love it because it feels a little bit like social media tools that they're used to. But it's a very safe, classroom-friendly environment that you can create with your students. And basically, at the beginning of the school year, you can invite students to post about books that they've read in the past that they've loved, perhaps their summer reading. And there they are, live and in person and giving this talk in a video. And other students can then, of course, see and respond to their posts on Flipgrid and it just builds this incredible community. One of the things that we love doing across the school year is encourage our students to create book talks. Okay, which is a very short pitch in talking about a book so that others can, hopefully, pick that book up too. And it's amazing to see on their faces, across the school year, you can see their confidence growing as readers because it's right there. It's right there, you can see how much they've grown. It's a really awesome tool for those of you who want to get involved with technology. I really encourage you.
Sonja: So in September, rather than asking students to write a reflection about a book they read and loved over the summer, you could, again, ask students to create a Flipgrid about their summer reading and students are then able to really just hear from each other. And it's a way to just make reading electric in the classroom, I find.
Because the kids are engaging with them and, as Dana said, it does mimic some of the social media tools that kids are using, so it makes sense for teachers to think about safe ways to bring that experience into the classroom because it just heightens their engagement and makes it exciting for them.
Dana: It does. And other students can respond and say, "Thumbs up" and it's just, it's great.
Sonja: And then later in the school year, you might have students use Flipgrid in their book clubs.
Sonja: And that's always fun.
Dana: Absolutely. It's a great tool for book clubs to use because they can get together and they can post and create their individual, unique, book club identities that way. And then they can see what other book clubs are reading and it's a wonderful way to connect to everyone in the classroom.
Brett: Sonja and Dana, tell me about what you're working on next.
Sonja: We have had an exciting journey thinking through book clubs. And it's been something that we've been thinking about for a long time. I remember five years ago Dana and I saying, "You know what would be awesome? We should write a book called 'The Best Book Clubs Ever.'" We just lived with that feeling for so long because it is, I think, truly one of the areas in our classrooms that we love the most. And I think that what we want to challenge educators to do is to think about ways to breathe new life into book clubs, that really excite kids and make them want to read more and more and more. And I think sometimes we get bogged down in kids responding and writing in response to books and creating long written pieces and we get bogged down in rules and procedures and expectations and Dana and I have been thinking about the book clubs we've been a part of and why we love them. And those book clubs experiences didn't have rules and we didn't have jobs or roles. And while some teachers have experienced success with some of those methods, it's been our experience that eventually that peters out and then the kids are just sort of, I don't know ...
Dana: It feels like school.
Sonja: It feels like school. It does feel like school.
Dana: We wanted to bring the joyful experience of adult book clubs or many, many different types of club experiences, not just books, you know? A team, team sports and all of that, we wanted that feeling of the team and the club and that joy.
Sonja: And we want to honor the authentic ways that kids communicate.
Sonja: We wanted to honor the authentic ways in which kids communicate. So if you've ever been driving a car of a van with four or five kids in it, there is lot going on in that back seat and yet, somehow each kids come out of the car knowing exactly what happened. That's kind of what our classrooms are like. We have, I think, a different understanding about kids and the ways in which they operate than maybe we've been thinking about in the past and it is a bit chaotic and it is a bit noisy. And I think we want teachers to lean into that and not be afraid that learning isn't happening because you might have one student who is on a blog during a club meeting and two kids are thumbing through a book and another kid is maybe writing something on a post-it and from the outside looking in, it might look like, "Okay, they're not all looking at each other, they're not all listening to the one speaker at a time." But if we're really being honest, that's just not how kids function.
Sonja: And if we want book clubs to be this space where kids get excited about reading and they want the book club to last even outside of the classroom experience, then we have to loosen the reins and just rethink what book clubs look like in classrooms.
Brett: So we're at the very start of the new school year. If you could give us one piece of advice, one nugget about book clubs that we could take into the school year with us, what would that one nugget be, knowing that there's a full book of this coming out in the spring?
Dana: I think probably the one nugget would be the importance of ownership and choice. Donalyn Miller, Lucy Calkins, there've been a lot of educators who've been talking about the importance of ownership and choice, particularly in relation to independent reading and we'd like to see that happening in book clubs as well. So maybe not the entire class is in a historical fiction book club because you know you have students for whom historical fiction is not their favorite. It's okay for one club to be in a fantasy book club while maybe another club, they're reading nonfiction books about sports and another club, maybe they're reading verse novels. And again, what we want teachers to really think about is dropping the reins and putting the emphasis on a joyful reading experience.
Sonja has taught 5th and 6th grade middle school students for more than fifteen years and is currently working to complete her doctorate in curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has presented at conferences on reading instruction that makes central issues related to power and perspective and has provided professional development for numerous educators on the teaching of reading and writing. Sonja is a committee member for The Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, which acknowledges the work of authors and illustrators who promote peace and equality. Her first book, Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, co-authored with Dana Johansen, is reflective of her ongoing work to propel students’ growth as readers and help them view the world through multiple lenses.
Follow Sonja on Twitter @LitLearnAct
Dana has taught elementary and middle school for more than ten years. She currently teaches fifth grade English and is earning her doctorate in Curriculum & Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Dedicated to the ever-expanding applications of technology in the classroom, she has presented at conferences on the use of iPads, wikis and blogs in the classroom. Passionate about this work, her first book, Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, co-authored with Sonja Cherry-Paul, combines her love for teaching reading with digital resources.
Follow Dana on Twitter @LitLearnAct