Five years ago, when my teaching life changed from a full-time classroom teacher to a 50% teacher, 50% professional development/literacy coach I adopted the following quote as my professional mantra:
“One can go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.”
I’ve been fortunate to attend several Teachers College Reading and Writing Institutes with Lucy Calkins and company. In August of 2015, I was lucky enough to spend a week with the one and only captivating Lester Laminack as the leader of my small group. For those of you who know the “magic” of Lester you’ll understand how truly marvelous the week was! Throughout that week, Lester shared the principles of a project he had been working on with Scholastic. They were in the midst of creating a read-aloud resource centered on the idea of books being “best friends.” Best friend books would be books that we visit again and again with our students, for joy, for learning, for mentoring.
Lester Laminack and Scholastic made their vision come true. The Best Friend Collection is now available from Scholastic. I love The Ultimate Read-Aloud Resource that accompanies the collection and return to it again and again for advice.
Lester’s concept of “best friend books” transformed me. When choosing books to use with students I’m now always thinking, does this book have the potential to be a “best friend book?” Is it worthy? Will it enhance student joy? Will it promote learning? Will it make a difference in the eyes of a child?
I now apply the “best friend” idea to professional reading I do, and I do a lot of it! I’m a voracious professional reader. I follow several professional blogs and professional social media groups, (often too much). I savor the feel of a new book, with highlighter in hand, and sticky notes at the ready, I’m in professional heaven. Here is a bit of evidence that showed up on my sunroom floor in August.
I’m pretty sure I’m typical of many well seasoned teachers when reading professionally. I constantly question my practice, I sometimes panic when I read new things, feel inadequate and wonder how I’ve lasted 35 years in the classroom with all that I don’t know. Thankfully, I’m also always encouraged, inspired, challenged and motivated by my reading. I’m always anxious to share new learning with my students and colleagues.
As the start of a new school year was looming closer and closer to the horizon, I wanted to choose one book to be my “best, best friend” professional book of the summer. What a tough decision! Everything I read was worth my time, each book in its own right belongs in my “best friend” collection. The tricky part, in choosing one top pick, was that I didn’t want to slight any of the brilliant authors I read, nor ignore the quality of their professional work. (A few of the books in my pile were actually rereads, so they were out of the running). All the texts in the photo above are worth their weight in gold, but eventually, I did choose just one book as my best, “best friend” for the summer of 2017.
Ready? Drum roll, please… The Writing Teacher’s Companion: Embracing, Choice, Voice, Purpose and Play by Ralph Fletcher (Scholastic 2017).
In this book, Ralph Fletcher had me at the acknowledgments. “Think of this book as a tree with an elaborate root system both wide and deep, one that has evolved and spread for many years” (p.5). I am a teacher with an elaborate root system, one that has evolved over many years and continues to evolve. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been a writing workshop teacher since 1984… yes, I’m that old! Needless to say, Ralph had me hooked!
The Writing Teacher’s Companion spoke to both the teacher and coach in me. Ralph’s voice, advice, and humor were just what I needed to continue to inspire me as a writing teacher. So, here for your enjoyment, in old school, David Letterman, top ten style, are the top ten tips I gleaned from the book. They are the reasons why The Writing Teacher’s Companion is my “Summer of 2017 Best, Best Friend Book.” (Honestly, the order doesn’t matter, I just thought that might be fun!)
#10. Keep your mini lessons mini. Minilessons should be the “appetizers,” the “pep talk,” of writing workshop. “The last thing you want to do in a mini-lesson is kill the energy, the child’s natural desire to write” (p. 72). The minilesson is often considered by teachers as what matters most, but time for actual, sustained writing is much more important. “Kids should spend the lion’s share of the workshop writing” (p. 62).
#9. Keep your writing workshop format simplistic and focused on time for writing! “It’s not so much that you will teach your kids to write. They will teach themselves by writing every day, and by living in a community of writers” (p. 13).
#8. You’ll have a much smoother year if you expect:
Flashes of brilliance
Diversity not conformity (p. 16)
#7. “A story contains three basic elements: characters, plot, and setting–the same elements that can be found in your classroom. The characters (your students) and plot (their writing) may seem like the most important elements in the “story” you’re creating, But the setting–the physical classroom–will matter more than you think” (p. 41).
#6. Ralph acknowledges our crunch for time. “Time is a new kind of poverty. A schedule that features daily writing communicates to students: ‘Writing is one of my non-negotiables. It’s too important for me to squeeze in once in a blue moon’” (p. 45).
#5. Revision shouldn’t be considered a hurdle to get over, but a piece of the prize. “Revision is not a way to fix a broken piece of writing; rather a way to honor a really good one” (p.112).
#4. “Choice is powerful stuff, and it will fuel your writing classroom, but it’s not a blank check. I remind students that choice does not include the decision to opt out and do something else when the workshop is running” (p. 55).
#3. Reading aloud great literature is critical to writing workshop. “The strongest support for the writing workshop comes from sharing books outside the workshop” (p. 76).
#2. Prewriting may not be all it’s cracked up to be, students only have a certain amount of energy or as Ralph calls it “juice” to work on a writing piece. “Try to expand your students’ concepts of prewriting to include thinking, musing, daydreaming, or chatting with a friend” (p. 100).
#1. “Don’t get overwhelmed. You can get there from here. Remember that it’s not just a process for students–teaching writing is a process for us. We’re in process: Pre-teaching, rough drafting, reading the energy of the class, revising tweaking…. Give yourself permission to screw up once in awhile. I certainly did when I got started. You’ll learn a ton along the way. Embrace the journey and. And have fun!” (p. 165).
In closing, Mr. Fletcher, although we’ve never met, I can imagine we would enjoy each other’s company. So, if you’d like to get together for a cup of coffee in beautiful Vermont, visit my school or teach with me in my classroom, just let me know. I’m ready! And, of course, Lester Laminack, you’d be more than welcome to join in the fun and shenanigans. In the meantime, THANK YOU gentlemen, for writing, for inspiring, for making me a better teacher.
Kathy Christy is a third grade teacher & professional development coach in East Montpelier Elementary School, Vermont.