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Summer Schooled

Summer school officially ended on Thursday, August 6, and I wanted to take a few weeks to gather my thoughts before posting. It was an intense six weeks, and I think I learned just as much, if not more than, as my students.

Here are the top ten things that I'm thinking about heading into the new school year:
  1. Every student, even those that are labeled as "at-risk," can love to read. I have continued appreciation for receiving the Book Love Foundation's grant last year. I took many of those books to my summer school classroom, and I had so many students tell me that this was the first time in years that they had read something they chose and liked. As I head into my classroom, I know that I can't have preconceived notions about which kids like books and which kids don't. I have to give them opportunities, time, and space to explore good books. 
  2. After many years of not having choice in writing, it takes effort to move writers into finding inspiration. Because I treated summer school as more of a standards-based experience, I allowed students to write about whatever they wanted--but it wasn't easy. We talked GAPS (genre, audience, purpose, and style), and spent more than a week on each writing assignment. It was an absolute privilege to see some students take their writing through two, three, even four drafts. I also read some of the most meaningful and passionate student writing I've ever read before, like the student letter to his brother about what to expect as a teenager without a dad. Giving students choice has been powerful. Now I need to find ways to make room for choice within the confines of my regular context and curricula. 
  3. Bring pencils, loads of them. We can waste time complaining about students not bringing materials with them, but does it really change anything? Is calling out a student in front of the class going to make that student more likely to bring a pencil next time? Is it worth a student "shutting down" and not completing any work because he or she doesn't have something to write with? In my class, their work--their thinking--is more important than a forgotten supply. 
  4. If you're stressed, they're stressed. Last year I didn't pause enough to have fun, to find the small joy in every day's lesson. I'm now at the point in my career to know that change is expected. Every year, I will encounter a new or revised assessment beyond my control, but that doesn't mean I have to show my fear, my worry, or my stress to students. I've found that when I am most relaxed, I am most prepared. And that same calm feeling transfers to my students. I can't rush their learning if I am really being responsive to their needs and creating an inclusive culture. 
  5. Threatening failure does NOT work. I used to quote Albert Einstein and remind students to stop doing the same thing over and over again. But that didn't change anything. I, in fact, was the very definition of insanity by just repeating that. There are always underlying reasons why students aren't completing their work. Sure, it takes more time to find out the reasons why, but that extra step will be what's most likely to change their habits and mindset. This year, I will try to be that constant source of hope for my students as I help them feel success. Too many already know what failure feels like. 
  6. Re-reading a text that students have had bad experiences with doesn't work either. I know that second-draft reading is important and that readers make greater meaning when they read something they are already familiar with. What I also learned, however, is that once a reader has a bad experience with a text, it takes a lot of time, effort, and energy to change their impression of it. Sometimes we just have to admit that that text isn't right for that student, and we can find another way in my swapping that title with another one. I think this is the thing that really stands out to me as I'm sure to encounter students repeating a class this fall. How can I make this experience truly different for them since the last time? 
  7. Using real-life texts DOES work. For many students, ELA can seem so distant from the real world. When I used Serial to teach arguments of fact during the summer, students flourished. They were engaged in ways that I didn't expect, even when just listening to the introductory podcast, a task that's really hard to do and contains no visual aids. Many of them were conducting research on their own outside of class and bringing it in the next day to share with their peers. 
  8. Students really appreciate reading and writing conferences. Like I've heard Penny Kittle say before, conferences are the most effective and least efficient. Students, however, really appreciate the chance to have that one-on-one time with a teacher. In fact, it's sometimes the only opportunity that a teacher can have to get to know a student better, especially if that student is too shy to share often in front of his peers. This year, I'm really going to enforce my belief that I must confer with every student every week. I will find a way.
  9. Every student is an expert at something. One of my first activities was meant to help students find a writing territory. (I think Kelly Gallagher uses this term in Write Like This.) At first I was surprised at how many students said they weren't experts at anything (see #5 above). With a little brainstorming and discussion, each was able to eventually find at least one topic that they knew well enough to teach others, and many used this same topic over and over again for their writing. All students have knowledge that they can share with others. All students' expertise is valuable. 
  10. Students remember how you make them feel. One of my teacher mentors reminded me of this in college. It's akin to how we "teach students, not content." I can't emphasize the importance of the social dimension in my classroom. I want students to feel comfortable, to feel as if their thoughts are valued, and to feel as if they can speak their minds, even when their ideas aren't the most popular. But I also know that the way other students respond to students is based on how I respond to them. I am their model, their mentor. As teachers, I think it's easy for us to want to sound right all the time, but we also have to do so in a way that doesn't intimidate students. I only realized this after a student pointed it out to me. 


  1. Kevin,
    I always love reading your blog, but this one is incredibly insightful and important. I hope you have a great school year!


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