Pull Up a Chair!


Reading conferences begin today. We’ve been in school for two weeks, and I’m anxious to start. A handful of my students have already read two books, some have completed one, and others are plodding through that first one.

I’m using Remind and trying out the new Chat feature. I was skeptical because I didn’t want students abusing that, but, so far, it’s been amazing! On Monday evening of this week, from a self-professed non-reader, I received this message:

“Non-reader”: I’m just finished my book.

Me: Are you serious, _____? I’m so proud of you!

“Non-reader”: Thank you

I talked to him the next day. He’s a student I had in 8th grade, and he’s now a junior repeating his sophomore English. I knew he’d read that book in 8th grade, but I also knew he had not read a book in three years. I stopped him in the hall on Tuesday and asked him, “Well, what did you think of the book?”

He replied, “It was great!”

“You read it in 8th grade, right?”

“Yes, but I really understood it this time,” he replied.

You see, it’s ok to read a book more than once. They remember that reading “rule” from my eighth grade classroom. Granted, this book, The Barrio Kings, by William Kowalski was a mere 138 pages, but for, this “non-reader”, he finished a book before most of his peers who claim to be readers. What a boost to his morale! He’s already on his second book. I can’t wait to talk to him today about how it’s going.

I had another student message me last night. She’s in my Honors English III class, but guess what I’m finding? These students who elected to be in Honors English don’t consider themselves readers anymore either. This particular student is new to me. I didn’t have her in my 8th grade class, but I’ve already grown to love her renewed reader spirit. Here’s pieces of her message to me after finishing We Were Liars by E. Lockhart:


Me: And?! On a scale of 1-5…

M: Definitely a 5!

She goes on to tell how she couldn’t believe how the book turned out and what she was actually reading wasn’t what she thought she was reading. All the while, I’m nodding and saying, “YES!” because I read the book and know how she felt. And then….

Me: I’m so glad you stuck with it. I think it’s brilliant!

M: Wow! I’m so glad I picked this book as my first. I, M_____, (who hated reading), want to read a lot more.

Me: Awww! Really? I would have no idea you hated reading.

M: I used to, yes. I am guilty. BUT, only because I didn’t like the books I was reading. But now, it’s getting easier for me and I really love it!

So, with the help of Remind, I have figuratively pulled up that conferencing chair with two of my students already. Today, after they finish their Membean quizzes, I will literally pull up my chair and ask questions like “What’s going on in your book?” “On a scale of 1-5, what would you rate the book right now?” “You’re close to being finished. It’s a long weekend. What do you have on your ‘To Be Read’ list?” “Have you noticed any of the Notice and Note Signposts?”

I love this part of my job. It’s really the icing on the cake. It’s a time to connect with a student and find out more about how I can motivate him or her. It’s somewhat magical.

I do like magic, especially the magic that exists when that reluctant reader finds that “just right” book.

Individual reading record sheet 3rd week 2014-15

Are you ready?


You ready?

If you’re a teacher, you know that question: Are you ready? Beginning toward the end of July, no matter where you are or what individual has engaged you in conversation, the question will surface.

“Well, are you ready?”

Sometimes, I think this question has more to do with a parent asking if I’m standing at the line in a relay race ready to take the baton (their child) because the parent has run that race all summer. If that’s the case, I could honestly answer, “Yes!” If someone told me on a Sunday that school started a month early, and I had no choice but to be there that next day, a Monday, I would be ready. Ready to start the conversations that bubble up in ELA; ready to share my favorite book of the summer with them; ready to read my latest writing project to them and receive their feedback. I would be ready to listen to their stories of summer; ready to hear about their first jobs, their first loves, their first break-ups; ready to hear about the interesting ways they are finding to write (a blog, song lyrics, letters to an absent parent).

“Yes, I’m that kind of ready.”

But, if that question means is my classroom ready? I have to answer, “No, but it will be at midnight on Sunday.” I’m still setting up my “getting to know the classroom” centers for the first day. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to collect papers. I’m still making sure that my lesson plans align to the TEKS and the students and the world they live in. I’m still reading other master teachers’ blog posts like

Tricia Ebervia’s post How I Made Time for Reading…

and Amy Rasmussen’s recent post on Three Teachers Talk on doing Workshop in 45 Minutes .

After thirty years of teaching, you would think that I would be able to rest on my laurels and be ready for Monday morning, trouble- and worry-free, but I think it’s part of my process. Part of what makes me the teacher I am today.

Yes, to answer your question… I will be ready. I always am.


Because If Not Us, Then Whom?



I feel I’ll disappoint a few of my readers with this blog post. I think I’m ready to shoulder that.

Here’s the deal: as ELA teachers, we have a double-edged sword. On the positive side, we can easily bring the world into our classroom walls; on the negative side, we can easily bring the world into our classroom walls.

There are some days that I don’t believe I have the fortitude to do it. Days like the one a few years ago when a group of boys challenged every lesson in which we learned about the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and the surrounding countries. “We think it could be propaganda,” they intoned. A first for me outside of hearing the president of Iran make such claims, I fought to choose my words wisely and responded to their challenge. Later, these three boys and I talked individually, and, while a lot of this came from being an eighth-grade boy, I also knew that some of their disbelief came from influences outside of my control: parents, news media, and possibly some social media fringe movements.

I want my students to be thinkers, so, while this challenge was a bit scary for me, the incident helped me to shore up my own beliefs about genocide and our need as a society to respect all people.

So, when the events of the summer crashed into my news feed, a little part of me rejoiced that we would not have to discuss these issues in class in all of their fresh pain and anger. The other part of me longed for the interchange the teens in my classroom bring to discussing the events in our world. Compared to adults discussing current events, believe me, it’s so much more refreshing to hear what the teenagers have to bring to the table.

While I’m not entirely certain about which direction the discussion will go when I ask for their thoughts on #blacklivesmatter or immigration or “the Donald”, one thing I’ll know I have to address as I do every year is the “R” word.

I’ll bet you didn’t think this blog would come to that. Welcome to just about any serious discussion in real life or on the comments sections of the interwebs. You can almost always guarantee that the “R” word will surface. It goes down something like this:

LOVER OF ALL CREATURES: I can’t believe all of you people. You are saying such horrible things about [insert a victim or victimized group, human or non-human]! What is this world coming to? You are all retarded.

Yes, that’s the word. The word that even a tender-hearted animal-lover slung out recently on a comment thread. The word that a special education teacher who taught students with mental handicaps spewed when talking about something as inane as the schedule. The word that, invariably, my students will use when they are stumped in an argument with another classmate.

The “R” word. It makes my skin crawl. It hurts my ears. And I know that, if I don’t say something, who will?

My first three years of teaching were in early childhood special education. I daresay that, in thirty years, I have never come across a set of parents who cared more deeply for a child than one particular mother and  father who happened to be mentally handicapped. No matter the difficulty, they made it a point to be at every school event, send treats for the class, and provide for their young daughter.

At that same time, my ex-husband and I adopted a child who, now in his thirties, is mentally handicapped. Engaging, funny, and one heck of an athlete, the world is a better place because of Wes. Of course he has limitations, but I daresay there are few individuals on earth who could do as many consecutive cartwheels as he can and probably even fewer who can learn languages as quickly and fluently as Wes.

I really hate that word. What I know, though, is that all it takes to stop others from using it is to say something about it. New school year, new classes—we will have the “R” word discussion. After that my students will work as a team to break the chain of insult and pain. Every year, that’s what they do. Because that’s what they do, I have faith that, when they become adult citizens in our world, they will continue to stop the “R” word.

Because, if not us, if not them, then whom?

R-word/Spread the Word to End the Word

To everything – turn, turn, turn…


To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

I remember hearing this song by The Byrds on my mom’s little transistor radio. Snuggled up next to her in bed with her cool fingers stroking my forehead, my six-year old self somehow knew that these words were timeless. As timeless as the Bible verses in Ecclesiastes on which the lyrics were  based. Because Mama loved the song, so did I, which seemed to be the pattern 95% of the time.

Speaking of time, I let my blog languish for too long. Several reminders have hit me recently, and I realize that I cannot let any more time slip away. Recently, during the summer, I’ve conducted some professional development sessions for various districts and schools. At three of these, someone asked me to talk about my blog. Yeah, I had the whole “deer in the headlights” look. Each time this happened, I did a bit of self-talk and vowed to post….tomorrow…and, then, the tomorrow after that… and… Well, you get the picture.

writing meme

All it took for me to get off my butt and write (wait…I’m sitting while writing, so…) was a pint-sized, giant-hearted, word-loving, passion-inspiring girl named Jessica. You see, Jessica was my student last year in my English II Pre-AP class. While she was all of those hyphenated adjectives I used above, she came to me without a lot of self-confidence when it came to reading and writing. As a matter of fact, she might have even been a little whiny when I set out my expectations. Scratch that…she was whiny! Little and whiny, much like a gnat, but so much cuter.

Eventually, Jessica came into her “own” as far as believing in her abilities to read deeply and voluminously and to write beautiful and profound pieces. When the switch turned on, she no longer whined about reading; she juggled her busy schedule (powerlifting, cheer-leading, Spanish Club, and more) to meet the weekly goal of pages she set for herself. With her confidence growing, she found ways that she could use her writing to change the world, culminating in a school-wide fundraiser to raise money for veterans.

As teachers these types of transformations push us to give everything we’ve got to love yet one more student through their doubts and struggles. Sometimes, like today, it’s those very students who push us out of inaction into action.

Yes, I got an email from Jessica today. While she titled it, “You’re gonna need a tissue”, I was reading it on my phone and did not see the “warning”.

Her opening words:

Let’s be real, I was so upset and being completely selfish when I heard the news. You were truly one of my most favorite teachers and I really didn’t like the fact that you wouldn’t be coming back next year… Now that I have my head on straight, I’m so incredibly excited for you and the path you’ve chosen to take. You’ve taught me so much and now you get to teach many others right in your own “backyard.” I think the word to describe that would be “giddy.” Thank you Membean for inspiring my new taste in words, but also thank you Mrs Gonzo for introducing me to Membean.
And, for my blog readers, I am moving back to Eldorado after my year in Sonora. What the Sonora High School students taught me about high school reminds me of what Carlos and his classmates taught me about teaching in regular education (When a trashed turntable transforms (…or seeing a former student on Jimmy Fallon). Their lessons will never leave me, and, because of them, what I have to offer my upcoming high school students will be even better!
Suffice it to say, when I read those first words of Jessica’s letter, I was already feeling the ol’ tug on my teacher heart. Then, she hit me with this:
You’ve encouraged me to continue the following: my writing, reading, and blogging!! Yes, I have my very own blog. I love it! If you’re interested, give it a read!  Jessica’s Blog 
[Go to her blog—it’s wonderful!]
As you can well imagine, I felt a bit ashamed. I’ve let myself down by not posting on my blog since January, and I’ve let those who follow me (for whatever crazy reason! Ha!) down as well. Heading straight to Jessica’s blog, I read and read and was inspired to dedicate myself back to this blog.
It’s time. It’s the perfect time.
Thank you, Jessica and the Byrds for reminding me of that!
A time to plant, a time to reap

When a trashed turntable transforms (…or seeing a former student on Jimmy Fallon)


The background: It was 1989. I had been teaching three years. Three years in early childhood special education where I thought I’d be content for the rest of my life. Nevertheless, after adopting a child with special needs, I felt compelled to explore the teaching life in a regular classroom. Special needs at home and at school were a bit over-whelming.

Hired at an elementary in the same district, I met my coordinating teacher, Elaine Howard, that summer before school started. To say we “hit it off” would be an understatement. In no time we were completing each others’ sentences, making plans for the upcoming year, and marveling at finding our “educational soul mate.”

School started soon enough. Teaching one of the two 5th grade classes (Elaine taught the other,) my year got off to a great start…until the principal came to my door. Her expression did not encourage me. Sure enough, the news was grim: I was to move to another campus within the week unless our numbers came up. I believe I had 12 students and Elaine had 13. The numbers remained the same, and I prepared for the move. Amidst my tears and the students’ tears, I went to the school that needed a teacher leaving a classroom of 5th graders I’d already grown to love and a teaching partner that I couldn’t believe I was having to leave.

The principal at the new school met me in the office. To add insult to injury, I discovered that these students (also 5th graders,) had been abandoned by their assigned teacher (she never showed up to school due to a salary conflict!) Three substitute teachers had come and gone; one stayed 1/2 a day and swore she’d never come back. I was being shuffled to this. I gritted my teeth and walked the long hallway with the principal to view my new classroom and new students.

I heard them before I could see them. Another substitute opened the door, and I peered past her. A room filled with 25 students yelling, laughing, and straining their necks to see who was at the door. I wanted to close the door and run away. I wanted to go back to teaching Early Childhood Special Education. I wanted to do anything but say “yes” to this classroom of unrestrained pre-teen individuals. But, I was young, and I was idealistic, and I needed a paycheck.

“Yes,” I said through gritted teeth. “I’ll do it.”

The principal sighed, running his hand through his combover. “Whew! I sure do appreciate you doing this. Luckily, you’ll have three days to get yourself ready during the Labor Day Weekend.”

And that’s what I did. With the help of my then mother-in-law, my ex-husband, and probably a few others I can’t recall, we recreated that room and made it ready for the students when they entered the door on Tuesday after Labor Day. It wasn’t easy as this room was an “overflow” room, situated in the 1st and 2nd grade hallway. The other three 5th grade classrooms were housed in a new building in another area of the campus. Not only that, this room was devoid of any teaching materials. And, if that weren’t enough, the students in the classroom were students whose parents had not gone to the office to request their children be placed in a particular classroom. The odds were stacked, and they weren’t in my favor.

Tuesday arrived along with a motley bunch of fifth graders. Many of them had more street cred than my current sophomores in the rural school in which I teach now. They had swagger, mouthiness, and a penchant for pushing a teacher’s buttons. But, yet, I grew to love them quickly. We became a family thrown together in an unlikely setting. They needed me and I needed them.

Carlos was one of the mouthiest. An intelligent kid with a lightning bolt shaved into his head, he lead the pack much of the time. I worked hard to stay one step ahead of him. Boredom created havoc when it landed on Carlos. From cleaning our hermit crab tank to staging a Thanksgiving production, Carlos needed an outlet, or two or three.

One day I decided that the students would create a product from trash. It was a self-contained classroom, and ecology was a theme we explored. I assigned the project, gave the kids some parameters, and set a due date.

About a week later, students traipsed down the hallway carting their treasures from trash. I could see Carlos down the way with a contraption that he could barely carry. Former teachers stopped to gawk. 1st and 2nd graders clamored around him as he made his way down the hall toward me.

As he got closer, I still had no clue what his creation was. He trudged into the room and set it heavily on the ledge by the window.

“Turn off the lights!” Carlos commanded. Someone did. He flipped a switch, and the large plastic cube-shaped container began turning. Eyes on the contraption flashed on and off. A song began to play. It was a musical robot that Carlos and his dad had rigged up in their garage, cobbled together from an old turntable and other items. Obviously, it was a hit. I wish I could recall at least one other project the students brought that day, but, for the life of me, all I can see in my memory is that crazy robot turning, flashing, and singing.

Eventually, Carlos went on to middle school and I ended up back at the school I started teaching in the first place with my “soul mate in education,” Elaine.

That wasn’t the last I would hear of Carlos, though. Every year, from middle school to high school, I would receive a letter from the Alternative Education school. Sometimes, I’d receive several letters a year, depending on what kind of school year Carlos was having. One of the standard assignments, I suppose, when students got into trouble and were placed for a time period at that setting, was to write a letter to a favorite teacher. Yes, I was lucky enough to be on the receiving end of those letters. It was a double-edged sword, though. Happy to hear from Carlos, I worried about the trouble he was in, the choices he was making, and what would happen to him. Would he graduate? Would he end up in prison? Were there no teachers that could channel his gifts and help him to succeed?

I shouldn’t have worried. Fast forward from 1989 to 2015. This past Friday night, Carlos made his debut on The Tonite Show with Jimmy Fallon, dj-ing for Lacrae, a Christian rapper. Carlos’s path from a cocky, mouthy, creative 5th grader had led him into trouble, but he had not remained there. He figured out ways to pull himself out of the choices he had made and worked hard to recreate himself.

In retrospect I realize the impact Carlos made on me and my life as a teacher. I’ve learned to never give up on a child. You never know what he or she will become.


Mindmup, Messiness, and Mastery


mindmup of TotS

PDF of TotS Mindmup

Using Mindmup helps me contain my creative ideas and reign in the mess that’s in my mind as I plan. I mindmap with my students as we write, so I naturally felt the urge to use the process in my planning. I’m sure over my nearly three decades of teaching, I’ve mindmapped hundreds…well, maybe dozens…of plans.

Recently, I wanted to find a mindmapping tool which I could access online as well as offline. After a simple Google search, I discovered Mindmup. If I recall correctly, it was the first hit in a long string of possibilities. So far Mindmup has served my purposes well.

One thing I know about myself is that I am a planner. I love to plan anything: vacations, Christmas, lessons, my birthday party (yes, that really happened, embarrassingly enough…rough patches in life make people do crazy things!)

Conversely, when it comes to carrying through on my plans, if I don’t have written evidence, I’m screwed. Loose papers of mindmaps do me no good when I can’t remember where I placed them. Enter Mindmup—an online, free (you can purchase an amped-up version, but the free version is working fine for me at this point) program that has helped me document my thinking.

I’ve inserted a picture of a Mindmup I’m working on currently regarding the teaching of Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare. As I researched various avenues to travel in teaching this play to my students, the information became unwieldy, in fact, enormous. I had to have a process of taming me before I became a shrew.

Fortunately, Mindmup fit my needs. If you choose to use Mindmup and need some pointers (believe me, it’s really easy—you probably will catch on quickly!), email me, and I’ll be happy to help.

Reading Writing Workshop


Students talking about individual book choices, an important component of Reading Writing Workshop.


After talking to each other about books, students often choose to put their classmate’s book on their own “To Be Read” list.

Yes, I am posting on a Sunday again, but, no, this post was not “on time.” What? you might be wondering. I didn’t realize there WAS an “on time.” Doing anything routinely goes against my nature, but I have pushed myself to try and publish my posting on this blog in a routine manner.

For four Sundays, I found myself engaged and at my computer, pushing out yet another blog post inspired by something that occurred in my classroom. I felt like I had dashed my disorder. Driven my disorganization to its depths no longer to plague me. And, then, something called “the end of the six weeks” and “grading” happened. That was last weekend. I was defined by grading, not by creating.

I realize as I type these words, I’m sounding as if I’m making excuses. I suppose I am. But, unless you are a teacher, you have no idea all of the baggage you carry around when you have a pile of papers to grade. I’m not talking about my beautiful new Sonora Broncos messenger bag filled with papers. I’m talking about students anxiously awaiting my comment on their freshly crafted poem. I’m talking about parents who, with good reason, expect their child to have more than one grade in the gradebook. And I’m talking about the sweet lady downstairs who reminds us daily of the deadline for posting our grades.

Sometimes, it is all a bit overwhelming.

I was overwhelmed last Sunday, and I did not post. Just like I tell my students, though, there are times we have to make up for a particularly busy week. I’m proud to say that I am here tonight working on that post that will make up for a particularly busy week.

A little over a week ago, I got a phone call from my daughter, Alana. With three girls of her own, homeschooling, and the many church activities she involves herself with, we often go several days without having time to visit. I was excited to hear from her and waited for the first story she’d tell about my crazy, beautiful granddaughters. That wasn’t what she was calling about, though. She was calling about my blog. She had read it, and she wanted to give me some advice. Well, here it goes, I thought. She’s going to tell me that, unless the blog reader is me, the whole thing makes no sense. She’s going to try to be nice about, but I know Alana. She won’t lead me astray. I took a deep breath, and said, “OK.”

Alana proceeded to tell me that she loved it, that she thought it would be helpful to others, that she loved my last post which had a procedure for introducing poetry, but…. Yeah, there was that “but”… She pointed out that many readers would not understand Reading Writing Workshop. TRUTH! While many teachers do, in fact use workshop in their classrooms, the majority don’t, particularly at the middle school and high school level.

Since our conversation, I read a recent post on “Two Writing Teachers” blog. While it doesn’t encompass all of the terminology I use in workshop, the post does begin to unpack the components of Reading Writing Workshop. In the coming weeks and months, I plan to flesh out what Reading Writing Workshop looks like in my classroom, but, for now, I’m going to leave this post with a link to their blog.

Link to  http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/a-quick-guide-to-workshop-lingo/

Enjoy your week, and continue to Mine the Magic within your own classroom!

It’s hard, but it’s beautiful…


The mention of poetry elicits strong reactions from students. Past experiences in well-meaning classrooms often taint their “poetry palate”. Just like remembering a batch of cookies in which the cook forgot the sugar, I get that “look” from too many students every single year.

I can remember when teaching poetry scared me more than “doing the highs” at the ROPES course. The fear was three-fold:

1. Would I screw them up even more than they already were regarding their “taste” for poetry?

2. Would they say things that would hurt my poetry feelings? I love poetry, and it often feels like a personal affront when students hate it.

3. How could I, mere mortal that I am, possibly teach this beautiful form of literature?

The rest of this post will go through the beginning processes I’ve honed throughout the years to teach poetry in a practically pain-free way.

First, I like getting a baseline of sorts from my students. It’s simple, but it’s tried and true: ask each student to reflect on what they know, believe, and feel about poetry. Because so many students have such disdain for poetry, I simply ask the students to write 1/2 to 3/4 page. Of course, I explain to them that there’s no right and no wrong about this. I just want to know where their heads and hearts are regarding poetry.

Then, on the following day, you can bet about 90% of the students have forgotten their reflection, so poetry isn’t on their radar anymore. I can pull a “fast one,” thanks to the internet, Slam! Poetry, and Daniel Beaty.  If you’ve never seen this poem performed, click here:

“Knock, Knock” by Daniel Beaty

The students react accordingly:

  1. Transfixed throughout the performance;
  2. Pulled into silence immediately afterwards; and, then,
  3. Compelled to question Daniel’s technique, his life, the words, the story, the poetic elements, and on and on.

At this point it’s difficult to contain even the most resistant student. The questions come at me like rapid-fire. They argue with each other about what Beaty is saying. And, finally, someone says, “Can we watch it again?”

“You bet!” I enthuse. Inside, I’m doing my best super-villian Bwhahahaha! laugh, because, you see, now each and every student from the resistant to the poetry fanatic is ensnared in the magic.

“But,” I continue, “This time I have the printed words from Beaty’s poem. As you listen the second time, mark up those lines you love, put a question mark next to words or phrases that baffle you, star the brilliance when you find it, write your thoughts to the side. Do what you need to do to make this poem yours.”

We listen and watch again. I give them four or five minutes to mark up their copies. Next, we talk.

What do we talk about? We clarify what Beaty’s words could mean. We look at how he cleverly switches up words in a line, “Dribble the page with the brilliance of your ballpoint pen” from “How to dribble a ball” in a previous line.

“But wait!” a student in the back blurts out. “That’s alliteration, isn’t it?”

“Oooooo….cool!” several students intone.

The conversation goes on in much the same manner, with students pulling bits and pieces from the poem, tasting it, rolling it around in their mouths, and resetting their poetry palates for the new discoveries to come.

Oh, and before I close, I must explain the title. On Wednesday, I read through the students’ reflections about poetry. Here are just a few tidbits I gleaned from their writings:

  • a way to get the girls
  • hard to get at first
  • re-read it like 500 times, you’ll get it
  • I think they should stop writing poetry
  • it is pointless
  • I still don’t get how the guy with the guitar can steal my girlfriend just ‘cuz he writes poetry.
  • your life settled on a page

Then, I came across a student’s reflection. This is a student with dyslexia. Reading is difficult for him. Writing is painful for him. I’m certain that poetry hasn’t been his best friend in the past, but he wrote:

It’s hard, but it’s beautiful.

Yes, I thought. That’s it. Poetry IS hard, but poetry IS beautiful. As a teacher, I feel the same. TEACHING poetry is hard, but TEACHING poetry is so beautiful.

Next week, I’ll share some other strategies for teaching poetry.

The “Golden Rules of Student Conferencing” with a Little Help from Rock Tumbling

The “Golden Rules of Student Conferencing” with a Little Help from Rock Tumbling

“There are three important rules that you should keep in mind whenever you go to your tumbler. These are: 1) Garbage in means garbage out; 2) Avoid contamination; and, 3) Great results take time.”

To begin this post, I’d better clarify my analogy. I do not identify with the camp that proclaims that students are as “dumb as rocks”, nor would I be disappointed to have received rocks on Halloween, unlike Charlie Brown. If you’ve read my first two posts, you know that I find rocks fascinating and filled with potential.

While I’m not sure how long this rock analogy will play out in my blog, I woke up quite early this Sunday morning with the idea of how student conferencing is much like tumbling rocks. Excited to get a bit of inspiration from the experts, I googled “rock tumbling” into the search bar. (Yes, I really did use “Googling” as a verb. It felt weird, but I did, in fact USE Google!)

My first hit landed me at http://rocktumbler.com/. Umm-hmmm….these amateur geologists aren’t into cutesy, clever names. Let’s just call it what it is: rocktumbler dot com. Alright, then—if I’m to continue with this analogy, I suppose I am the “rock tumbler” in my classroom. Looking at the different models, I would be a Thumler Model B.

The Model B has a single 15 lb. metal barrel with a rubber insert and gasket. If you fill this barrel about 1/2 to 2/3 full of rock as recommended it will process about ten pounds of rock. The soft rubber insert and gasket will tumble your stones with a minimum amount of noise. It has the low speed, 1550rpm, overload protected motor. Age Recommendation: This is a large-capacity tumbler that should be used by adults.

Considering my years in teaching, I would probably be the largest, most expensive rotary tumbler. Not too noisy and has processed lots more gems than the smaller, less expensive models. Perhaps my mentors, such as Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, and Cris Tovani, are the Thumler Model UV10, processing many more gems in half the time. But I digress…

Garbage in means garbage out

When I consider the first rule of rock tumbling, “Garbage in means garbage out,” I remind myself of those weeks I have been tempted to opt for no student reading conferences, weeks like last week. The expectations in my new district are huge for football, so lots of emphasis is placed on the celebration of Homecoming. We had the typical dress-up days which can’t help but distract from the learning process. We had a guest speaker on Wednesday which ate up time from two different classes. Friday, we had the Homecoming Olympics starting at 10:00 am (my team pic is featured on this post) and an early out at 12:00 to get ready for the Homecoming Parade. All of this was great fun, but I kept thinking, Should I really take up one class period with reading conferences? 

My answer came from not one, but several students asking, “Aren’t you going to conference with us?” “Are you gonna talk to me about my new book?” “Hey, Mrs. G! I read a lot this week. Can we talk about how I did it?” Really? How can I say “no”? Yes, I could have spent that period teaching more about our Article of the Week lesson, but I know that next week’s reading for many of my students would be “garbage”. They still need a one-on-one push, a validation that I know what they’re accomplishing with their reading despite their busy schedules, and a discussion about how books have rocked their world.

Avoid contamination

So far I haven’t heard the dreaded words, but it may come. It will sound something like this: You mean you waste a whole class period discussing individual reading with sophomores? Aren’t they old enough to do this on their own? Couldn’t you use that time to teach them about split infinitives, Beowulf, and Grecian Urns? While these questions might come from colleagues, from parents, from administrators, they often come from within myself. I question and wonder and doubt often. Do reading conferences really need to happen in high school? Is it a waste of time? Shouldn’t we be doing “English-y” things every day?

The answer hides in each conference I have. When a student realizes that he read past his weekly pages and asks to “bump up” his goal, when a student begs to be the first one because she’s figured out the mystery of the book’s title which leads to us discussing the book’s theme, when a severely dyslexic student reads 5X the amount he read last week even if it is “only” 55 pages in a week, my decision to have reading conferences at the high school level is validated, a student at a time. Every week, it becomes easier and easier to ignore the contamination and to really know what I’m doing is right.

Great results take time

Don’t be in a hurry. Spend time doing a great job. If you tumble a batch of rocks through the coarse grind and they still have a few rough edges or are not nicely rounded, don’t hesitate to run them through that step again.

Exactly! While we know, as teachers, that we don’t have a lot of time, we have to remind ourselves that great results DO indeed take time. In conferencing with students, I’ll come across a few that had a bad week. I’m finding out that sophomores have so many more distractions than 8th graders. I have students who are in marching band and are football players. I have others who are working at the local pizza joint or another fast food restaurant until 11:30 on several school nights. Other students already have families of their own, and figuring out how to fit self-selected reading into their world seems daunting.

Part of my job as a “rock tumbler” is to help my students figure out how to carve out time. Maybe they can read on the bus on their way to a football game. (Some of my boys said this worked for them despite getting mocked by a couple of coaches! I was so proud of them for forging onward.) They can take their books to work and read a few pages during “down time” at work. I’ve suggested reading their own books to those that have babies. On Friday one 16-year old student whose first sibling is a month old said he simply read his book to her while helping his mom out! Talk about creative reading.

Rough patches happen especially with teens. I have to make the effort each week to have these special conversations with my students about reading. Sometimes, all it takes is helping them to realize they can find snatches of time within their busy weeks. When this occurs regularly week after week after week, like rocks in a tumbler, students’ rough edges begin to smooth and they begin to sparkle.

Happy rock tumbling, readers!

Rock Tumbler Instructions. (n.d.). Retrieved October 19, 2014.