Posted by Justin Minkel on Sunday, 05/31/2015
When the gong strikes three tomorrow, twenty-four marvelous 1st graders will be transformed into 2nd graders. I’ll be joining all of you (and 3.6 million other teachers) in reflecting on another school year as the roller coaster ratchets to a stop.
Here are my top three end-of-the-year reflections; I’d love to hear your own.
1. Real books matter.
Learning to read without a book seems as absurd as learning to ride a bike without a bike. Yet books sometimes seem an endangered species in the primary classroom, their survival threatened by phonics worksheets and decodable text that makes Dick and Jane primers look positively Narnian by comparison.
Separating reading into its component parts makes sense, in theory. But when we go too far, kids can lose sight of why they’re clapping syllables or highlighting vowel teams, blends, and the “magic e.”
Imagine a bunch of kids who spend each day dissecting frogs. They know a lot about tiny lungs and gallbladders, but they have forgotten what a living, leaping frog looks like.
There’s a lot I wish I had done differently this year, but I’m proud of the number of actual books I have put into my students’ hands and homes. Every day of the week, the kids check out a book from the class library to take home. Our home library project enabled each child to choose 25 books to keep. Family literacy nights added another eight books chosen with their parents, many of them in Spanish, to their personal libraries at home.
For guided reading, I replaced the usual centers with time spent for every group to read a book on their level and respond in writing to a Literature Circle Role—making connections, writing summaries, asking questions, and so on. As a result, the kids’ comprehension is the strongest I’ve seen with a class, no matter a particular child’s reading level. Average growth on the Fountas Pinnell Benchmark Reading Assessment was above the annual expectation, 5.5 levels per child compared to the expectation of 4.
More importantly, the kids love to read. They have learned a lot about the world, and they’re more curious, creative, thoughtful people as a result.
2. For some kids, real books aren’t enough.
We all have hypotheses at the beginning of the year about what will work to help get our students to where they need to be. One of mine was that if I simply immersed the kids in language, reading, and a torrent of books, they would become strong readers.
It worked for my daughter, the same way it had worked for me when I was learning to read. Phonics were a nuisance for both of us, training wheels we didn’t need. Unfortunately, my “books are enough” theory worked great for 18 of my 1st graders but wasn’t enough for the other six.
The struggling readers in my class, including two children who speak Marshallese, turned out to need foundational skills in hearing the sounds in English and connecting them to print. I should have done more to provide that foundation.
You have to “love what you hate” as a teacher, and I’m planning to be a lot more systematic about those foundations of print when I loop with my class next year.
3. Know when to lean in. Know when to lean back.
The best commencement speech I have ever heard was delivered by Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary to President Clinton, at UC Berkeley’s Public Policy School graduation. The school’s motto is “Speak truth to power.” Robert Reich reminded the graduates that it can be even harder to “Speak truth to yourself.” He explained his decision to step down as Labor Secretary, walking away from work he loved that impacted millions of Americans, in order to be a more present father for his teenage sons.
A few weeks ago, I made the decision to lean back from several teacher leadership opportunities so I can lean in to teaching and fatherhood. I opted for a peripheral role on a state committee developing a strategic plan for education in my state, and I stepped down from the Board of an organization with colleagues I respect mightily and a mission I believe in to my core.
These decisions were hard, but they were also clear. I have grown plenty as a teacher leader this year while growing much less as a classroom teacher. I have spent nights on conference calls when I could have been planning more purposeful guided reading sessions. I have come to spend my weekends on my laptop instead of wandering parks and the Farmer’s Market with my 7-year old daughter and 4-year old son.
I had to speak truth to myself about the time I needed for my teaching and my family, or I would have ended up like Bilbo Baggins when he held on to the ring too long; he confessed to Gandalf, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Teaching is the most personal profession I know. It encompasses your entire self. If you’re not the kind of human being you want to be, it’s impossible to be the kind of teacher you need to be.
"When one door shuts, another opens."
Teachers have the gift of a summer between this school year swinging shut and next year swinging open. It’s a time to rest (“recover” might be a better word) from the exhaustion of a year spent meeting so many needs of the 25 children no longer in our care. It’s also a time of reflection.
What did you teach this year? What did you learn?
I’d love to hear your own end-of-the-year reflections.