Writing Workshop: The Highlight of My Month

When I was working full time for Edmentum, I was required to complete VTO hours. Immediately I thought about reaching out to my local library to see what I could do with teens. I was immediately offered an opportunity to run a new teen writing group.

What started out as volunteer time for my company, turned into my favorite night of the month. We have been running the workshop for a year now and it’s been amazing to see these writers grow!

Each meeting starts with the writers sharing their “homework” from last month (a response to a writing prompt). We all provide feedback and ask questions for each writer. Then I introduce the new writing prompts of the week, and after some chatting, we have some writing time. At the end of each meeting I have the writers share either a sentence or summarize what they got accomplished during the writing time. Sometimes the writers don’t have much because they were too busy chatting, or the creative juices weren’t flowing, and that’s totally okay.

As a teacher, I love being able to connect with kids on a personal level outside the classroom. We have created a safe place for middle/high school students to be themselves and share their writing. During our last meeting, I told the writers I was going to do a blog post on writing workshop, and they were gracious enough to provide me with their thoughts. (I typed their responses as they wrote them. Please keep in mind these are all middle school student responses).

“I love writing club because it’s a place where I feel welcome and unjudged. I love getting tips from other writers and making new friends that have similar interests. The prompts help me with my creativity and help me improve. I look forward to it every month!”

“Writing workshop is a great place to connect, write, and socialize.”

“It’s inspiring. Get to be helped out with your writing. Everyone’s nice.”

“Writing club is a great way to meet other kids with your interests.”

“How it gives teen writer the chance to share their work.”

“Writing work shop- I like that they let you speak your mined and that we can be creative and I have fun being around people. Every this is very organized. ”

I love that I get to spend time in my community by helping young writers. It’s the highlight of my month :).

PB & J Book Review

Six months ago when I decided to dive back into blogging, I was fortunate to connect with some amazing authors. Not only did I review their books, two of them even did virtual visits with me for my EdOptions Academy kids. We continue to follow and support one another on social media, and have developed a really awesome friendship. Christine Reynebau was one of my first author friends, and she continues to be an absolute inspiration. I reviewed her picture book Celebrate back in June (click here to see my review for Celebrate), and I’m super excited to share another one of her works.

PB& J, by Christine Reynebau, is a sweet story about perseverance and support.

The main character is an adorable little girl who wants to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but she can’t open the jelly jar. She tries a few ways to open the jar on her own, but she is unsuccessful. She decides to do what all girls do when the going gets tough… she asks her parents for help.

Both of her parents gently say they will not open the jar because they believe that she can open the jar on her own. At first I was surprised when her dad told her this, because dad’s usually do anything to help their daughters. But the fact that the dad encourages her to keep trying is heartwarming. I love that by not helping his daughter open the jar her dad is teaching her an important life lesson of perseverance. And when her mom also tells her daughter to keep trying it reiterates the life lesson.

The little girl spends the rest of the picture book trying creative ways to open the jar. I love that she ties the jar to the back of her bike and when that doesn’t work pitches the jar to her brother Mike. She really does try anything she can think of to get the lid off.

Spoiler alert: After all of her creative attempts, the little girl is successful by opening the jar with one hand. She is so incredibly proud of herself, as she should be, and celebrates with encouraging words from her parents and a PB & J sandwich.

This adorable picture book would be great with little ones in preschool through second grade.

To purchase the book click here.

My Why: Making My Classroom Virtual

Why did you want to be a teacher?

I’ve been asked this question countless times over the last ten years, by parents, administrators, college professors, etc. In the early days I would dive into a heartfelt story about playing school with my dolls growing up,  saying that I was meant to be a teacher. When I was working in public school I would express my desire to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Today, my why looks nothing like those responses.

In college, I was fortunate to be in a program that valued creativity and ambition. We were taught to create unit plans that sparked student engagement, incorporated real world skills, and fulfilled all of the state requirements. I felt incredibly confident in my ability to teach and truly impact my students in a positive way. I was ready to experiment with new ideas and collaborate with other teachers to give my students a memorable experience.

Since day one my goal has always been putting my students first. I promised myself I would always fight for my kids, to do whatever I could to provide them with the best education that I could give them. If that meant working on weekends, doing additional research, enrolling in courses, I would do it.

What they don’t tell you in college is that not all districts, supervisors or principals will have the same mindset. What they don’t tell you is how political a school building can be. What they don’t tell you is that sometimes the student will not come first.

My first year I taught eighth grade English. My course was focused on literature (woot woot!) and I worked in an affluent district with involved parents. They expected their children to go to college. Over the course of the year it became clear that my students wanted help with reading comprehension. They literally asked for help with it. The curriculum said I had to do a literature circle (students could choose 1 of 4 books to read), one of those being To Kill a Mockingbird. I knew the high school would have high expectations for my students, so I wanted to do To Kill a Mockingbird as a whole class novel to help prepare my students and work on reading comprehension.

I collaborated with my amazing in class support teacher, who agreed with me that this was the best decision for our students. I reached out to my supervisor, in his first year on the job, and waited for a response. He took days to get back to me. It was Friday afternoon, we started the unit on Monday. At 1 pm he responded that no I couldn’t focus on reading comprehension with TKAM. We had to leave the curriculum as is.

I was beyond frustrated.

That summer I was moved to sixth grade reading (yay!), and was writing curriculum with our new Pearson textbook. The Common Core had just come out and we had to revamp everything. I was so excited, until I was told we needed to use the textbook for EVERYTHING that wasn’t using one of our novels. The reason? New teachers need to follow a textbook.

The following year, I was moved to teach literacy support for sixth and seventh grade. I was working towards my reading specialist certification, so this was perfect for me. I had done a lot of research on read alouds and started to dedicate the first 10 minutes of my class to reading Divergent. I wanted a book that would hook my struggling readers and get them excited to read. These students were not scoring proficient on the state standardized test, so they needed all the additional support I could provide. Divergent was a title in the seventh grade curriculum as a literature circle choice. However, being that it was a popular book, many students had been reading it on their own. I included the text in my lesson plans for my supervisor to see when he checked it. He never said anything.

When he came to observe me first marking period he was not a fan of my read aloud. It took up 10 minutes of precious instruction time. The book was in the seventh grade curriculum, so I was told to stop reading the trilogy, even though Insurgent (the second book) was not in the curriculum.

At the end of the year, my tenure year, I was told I wasn’t a good fit and would not be returning.

I was hired to work in a charter school for the following September teaching sixth grade. I had an incredibly supportive administration team who wanted me to experiment. What I wasn’t prepared for was having students on a third grade reading level, with a severe lack of resources. I created a classroom library and a community of readers, but I couldn’t provide the individual time with students that they needed.

I resigned from my position to be with Molly. However, I needed to work because I’m just that type of person. I was an experienced teacher with a reading specialist endorsement, and I couldn’t get a job. I applied to hundreds of positions, virtual and brick and mortar. I didn’t even get an interview.

Finally, I was hired by EdOptions Academy, a branch of Edmentum, an edtech company. Making the leap from brick and mortar to virtual has changed my life. I’ve worked with hundreds of students from different backgrounds and life situations. I had the flexibility to collaborate with other teachers and provide my students with the support they needed. However, working full time was taking a toll on me. I struggled with balancing my work-home life, even working from home. I decided to go back to being part time.

Why?

Because I have a vision. I believe that literacy affects all areas of a person’s life. I believe those skills are critical for a person to be successful. I believe struggling readers need customized support.

From my own personal experiences, I can see how struggling readers fall through the cracks. There isn’t enough time, money, resources, etc. in many of our schools. There are teachers who are frustrated and burned out. The amount of red tape is negatively impacting our readers.

That is why I started Little Reading Coach. I’m getting rid of the red tape and set curriculums. I’m giving each student the individual focus they deserve.

Students have a million activities going on. I want to provide convenience by conducting all sessions virtually through Zoom. Tutoring can take place in the backseat of a car, at home or during study hall. There are no limits as long as we have wifi.

My why is to help struggling readers gain the skills they need to be successful. Whether that is to go to college, become a mechanic, or train to be a chef.

I struggled for years trying to understand why I wasn’t a “good fit” when I realized they weren’t the good fit. They lost the individual attention I believe every student deserves. They lost a teacher who made personal connections with families, who cried with moms during parent teacher conferences. A teacher who believes that it only takes one book to make a student a reader.

For more information click here.

How Becoming a Mommy Made Me a Better Teacher

With Mother’s Day right around the corner and with this week being Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been thinking a lot about being a mom and a teacher. I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and I have loved all of my teaching opportunities over the years. However, I have noticed that since Miss Molly was born I have become a better teacher.

I make the time for my students. The first four years of my teaching career I had about 125 students every year. I was constantly grading, lesson planning, attending meetings, trying to achieve tenure, etc. I was so focused on trying to keep my head above water, that I often did not get the opportunity to get to know my students. I admit it, I was one of those teachers that would feel annoyed when I got a parent email because I didn’t have time for it.

Fast forward to being a teacher mommy- I do my absolute best to put parents and students first. Many of the students I work with have a lot going on. They struggle with depression, anxiety, bullying, etc. I try to be supportive of students in and out of the classroom by asking how things are going or listening to their story. I communicate with parents more and make the time to talk/listen about what is happening at home. It’s amazing what parents will tell you if you just listen. Why do I do this?  I see now how a student’s personal life truly impacts their academics because I see it with my daughter.

I go out of my way for my students. Before I became a mommy, I would go above and beyond  for my students here and there. I would advocate for my students by making referrals and attending meetings, but once it was out of my hands I would stop being involved. As a teacher mommy, now I do more for my students. I have had students call me the night before Easter with questions because that was the only time they had to work as a student athlete. I have texted and graded work for students at 11:30 PM when their class ended at midnight so we could ensure they earned a passing grade. Why do I do this? I would want someone to do this for my child.

I take IEPS more seriously. Before I was a mommy, I would follow IEPs, but when I had no in-class support and I was dealing with students ranging from 2nd-8th grade reading levels, it became a challenge to make sure I was giving my classified students enough support. At this point, a lot of my attention was on my at-risk population because of the school’s goal. I did what I had to do, but I could have done more.

Now, not only do I modify assignments for my students (providing alternative texts, changing expectations, etc.) but I experiment and research. I’m going for my Orton Gillingham certification (one of these days I will finish it) and I’m constantly looking for new ideas to use with my students. This week I attended a webinar from the International Dyslexia Association about using Assistive Technologies (AMAZING!!) to see how I can help my virtual students. I spend more time giving super specific feedback on student work. I even give sentence stems and fill in the blank thesis statements for those who need it. Why do I do this? Every child learns differently. Molly is incredible with her verbal skills, but the girl just didn’t want to walk when she was a year old. She preferred to crawl or walk on her knees to move around. As a parent, I was concerned because I saw other little ones running on the playground at 9 months old. Not only have I learned not to compare children, but it opened my eyes that every single student is different and needs appropriate support.

 

Virtual Author Visit with Brenda Felber

Yesterday was without a doubt one of my favorite days as a virtual teacher. I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with author Brenda Felber using Zoom.

I use Zoom every week for my read alouds, but this was the first time I used the video chatting platform to host a guest. Zoom allows users to share their screens, so Brenda was able to share a fabulous PowerPoint presentation. Using the Gallery view, we were able to see one another while the Powerpoint was being shared. This was a great aspect because we were able to have a “face to face” conversation while Brenda went through her presentation.

In my eight years of teaching, I have never had the opportunity to have an author visit with my students. Usually at the middle school level students are limited with their experiences because there is so much pressure on getting class time in. In the brick and mortar schools that I have worked in, students were allowed one or two field trips a year and that was it outside of usual class activities.

Teaching in the virtual classroom allows me to give my students more learning opportunities. Not only do I do my weekly read alouds, but I can now bring my students author visits.

As a teacher, one of my favorite aspects of Brenda’s presentation was how she uses the writing process for all of her novels. She showed us a picture of her word map, one of the ways she brainstorms, and explained how detailed her editing process is. She also shared specific programs that she uses to bring the novel together. The teacher in me was ecstatic because students are able to see that the writing process is used for more than just a five paragraph essay.

As a reader, my favorite part was when Brenda discussed the different components of her books. In my book review on Twisted Games (Twisted Games: Pameroy Mystery Series Book 5 Review), I mention how Brenda combines mystery, history and fantasy. During our author visit, Brenda referred to all three of those ideas and why she uses them in her writing. This validated my reading skills and interpretations and also added to our conversation.

I made sure to record the Zoom session and I included it in my weekly newsletter for my students to watch when they have time. It was a truly fantastic experience and I am so glad to have connected with such a talented author.

Twisted Games: Pameroy Mystery Series Book 5 Review

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I tend to have a love/hate relationship with social media. Currently, I’m all about the love! Through Facebook, I was able to connect with an amazing author, Brenda Felber, and she is going to do an author visit with my virtual students tomorrow using Zoom!

In preparation for our author visit, I read one of the books in the Pameroy Mystery series. I chose to read the fifth book, Twisted Games, because there was just something about the description that said “read me”.

In the book, Lillia and her Grandaunt Nora take a trip to the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, and get involved in a 100 year old cold case. Along the way our main character makes new friends (real and imagined).

One of my favorite aspects about the book, and the series, is that it is unlike anything else that I have read. I’ve always been a reader, and I can usually make text to text connections, but for the life of me I can’t think of any other series or novel that is similar to this one. Felber combines mystery, fantasy, and history all into one text that engages all different types of readers. The dialogue between the characters is realistic and captures kid language perfectly. I also LOVE how each book takes place in a different state. I can’t wait to read the Jersey one :).

I was also a huge fan of the way the mystery unfolded. Usually I do a pretty good job at predicting what is going to happen. I tend to sense when a twist is coming. However, the writing of Twisted Games made it so my mind wasn’t focusing on just the mystery. This welcome distraction actually allowed me to go on the adventure with Lillia. The shifting back and forth from Lillia’s imaginings to the mystery held my engagement and prevented me from jumping ahead in the mystery, which was a first for me as a reader.

This is a fabulous book for readers in grades 4-6. I’m so excited for my author visit with Brenda Felber!

For more information about this fabulous author check out her website: https://brendafelber.com/

 

 

Building the Bond in a Virtual Classroom

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is being able to create amazing relationships with my students. That feeling when you walk into the room and you feel like a rockstar can’t be compared to anything else.

When I first started as a virtual teacher I had no idea how I would be able to achieve a bond with students I was not going to meet face to face. I learned very quickly that it’s impossible to develop a strong relationship with virtual students via email. They need human contact.

Over the last year, I have tried various modes of communication with my students in grades 6-12. Here is how I personally create a strong bond with my students.

Being myself. I’m a dork. I tell my kids all the time I’m a nerd. I’m loud, I’m dramatic and I know it. And when I show this side of myself my kids LOVE it. I use Zoom on a weekly basis for my read aloud (check out that post here) and while it was a little intimidating to be myself on video at first, now I embrace it. My kids have seen me drink Snapple during my read alouds, they have seen me recovering from a cold, they have heard the construction on my neighbor’s deck, and they love it. We have had conversations about our favorite Snapple flavors and what the weather is like. They are able to see me as a real person and we can connect in some capacity.

Listen to parents. I will admit that I was not a fan of parent teacher conferences in brick and mortar classrooms. I have had parents yell at me and make me feel uncomfortable, but I have also cried with parents as we discuss the fears they have for their child. I do not have parent teacher conferences in the virtual world, but we do make monthly progress calls/texts. I have had some students in four courses, so I’ve gotten to know the families very well.

A good chunk of my students take online courses because of health problems, physical and mental. When I call parents of these types of students I know I may spend 20 minutes talking to a mom about her other children and struggles she is dealing with. I listen every time. Even if she tells me the same story every month, I listen. Why? Because she’s trying to help her child to the best of her ability and at the end of the day my goal is to help children be successful.

When I let parents talk (sometimes vent) I always get more information about what I can do to help their child. One mom told me her son is just so overwhelmed by his assignments that he shuts down and has fallen behind pace. I made her son an individual calendar of what assignments to do on what day. He is able to focus on just one task to get him going, and sometimes that’s all a student needs. By listening to parents, I can individualize my approach, create resources and build trust with the family so we are all on the same page.

Consistency. My kids know they can always call/text/Zoom or email me. How? Because I do it ALL THE TIME. I send out my weekly newsletter with my office hours and read aloud schedule, I text or call to check in once a month, I have my read aloud every week and remind students. I put my contact information on every email that goes out to students. I tell kids I’m calling on my cell phone and they can call/text/or email me, whatever works best for them. I offer to meet with kids one-on-one in Zoom if they need help, even if it’s for every unit activity. It’s important to remind students you are there to help them.

Listen to the students. One of the perks about teaching virtually is that I don’t live by a bell. I make my schedule and have the flexibility to meet with students at all times (yes, even weekends). Some of my students are working and can only do homework at night. Some of my students are incredible athletes and train/practice for multiple hours a day.

Students today have crazy lives. They each have a story and sometimes they just need someone to listen to them. When I first started teaching students in Michigan, I called a student to do my welcome call. I have no idea how, but we started talking about life in general. She works part time at Burger King. Homeschooling was her best option because she has to pay for her college education and needs to work all different shifts to make that a happen. I was on the phone with her for an hour. We discussed how to manage time, how hard it is to adult (according to her I have adulting down), how to get the motivation to wake up an hour early to get an extra assignment done, etc.

After our phone call, she would check in with me regularly. If she had a question, she would shoot me a text. If she needed help with a course activity, she called me to walk her through it so she didn’t waste her time trying to figure it out herself. She passed my class. Halfway through last semester she randomly texted me to say hi and to let me know she was getting better at not procrastinating.

We’re a team. Whether I’m talking/texting/emailing/Zooming with a parent or student, I always reinforce that we are a team. We all need to work together in the virtual world to be successful. This looks different depending on my student.

I had a mom I called every week on Friday mornings so I could give her a progress report on her son. She told me in the beginning that she was not tech savy and preferred I spoke to her on the phone since she never read my emails.

I had a middle school student who was struggling to stay on pace. I was in constant communication with his guidance counselor, and we decided to meet in Zoom once a week as a team to check in. The student would ask me questions, we would review assignments and create a plan for the week. The student would also email me any questions/concerns during the week as well.

When I text with parents, they often tell me how frustrated they are. I always tell them we will get through it together as a team. It’s amazing how just saying that provides comfort to parents because they know they have a go-to person.

The virtual classroom has no judgement. Every student comes to me with a specific situation. A lot of them aren’t straight A students. For some of them, this is their only option to get an education. I feel closer to my students virtually than I ever did in a brick and mortar classroom because of the environment.