A Letter to Middle School Lauren

Inspired by my eighth grade students and Cheryl Strayed’s letter to her twenty-something self.
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A Page From My Reader’s Notebook

Author’s Note: Identity is a central tenant in my classroom teaching.  This year, after introducing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s  identity intersectionality framework to my students, I could tell the class was intellectually interested, but the heart of the lesson seemed to be missing. In this piece, I reconnect with the topics and struggles that mattered most to me as a middle schooler. In doing so, I aim to bring a little bit of softness back into our identity analysis.  

P.S.  You can read more about how we approach identity here.


Dear Lauren,

Middle school is hard.  It will be one of the hardest, goofiest, and most interesting times of your life.  You will struggle with almost everything—friends, “dating,” school, figuring out the hobbies you like to do—figuring out who you are.

Know it gets better.  Being popular doesn’t matter; it isn’t what makes you happy.  Having good friends is. You have good friends. Treasure them.

At ski club, when your super-smart-friend-who-has-been-acting-kind-of-weird-lately asks you to ride the ski lift with her, say yes.  When your other friends ignore her and exclude her, ride with her again, and again, and again. You don’t know it yet, but her parents are going through a divorce, and next year, she will move to a different school. You won’t learn this until it’s too late, but you don’t need to know this in order to be a good friend.

Start a book club.  The school librarian will love you for this.  You’ll get the school to buy new books, and you’ll get to hang out with your friends in the library during lunch.

Play the flute, and enjoy every moment of it, especially when you play duets with your best friend and your mom.  There is a special type of bonding that happens with music, and when you quit playing later because you start doing other things, you will miss this.

Go to summer camp.  It’s worth going away for two-weeks or four-weeks at a time. Weeks hiking and canoeing in nature will mean more to you than soccer camp or band camp ever can.

When you make eye contact with that girl in your seventh grade math class and get butterflies in your stomach, honor the fact that those were real butterflies.  When you ask your mom later if you could be a lesbian and she says no, you can believe her—you have always liked boys—but also know she can’t determine your sexual orientation, only you can.  Know you can have crushes on boys and girls. There’s a name for that: you can call yourself “bi” if gender is important to you, or “pan” if it’s not.

That one time you try to sneak out of the lunchroom early, don’t look furtively around you like you’re guilty.  Walk upright with confidence and purpose, and I bet no one will even notice you are breaking the rules.

Know your true friends are the ones you don’t have try around.  When you are attempting to figure out which lunch table to sit at, sit at the lunch table where you feel like people see you.  Sit at the lunch table where you find the conversation interesting, and you laugh a lot at things that are genuinely funny and not mean.  Pay attention to this laughter. This, more than most things, is a sign of real friendship.

When you think you’re middle class, know, you’re not.  You may be in the middle of what people have at your school, but realize, what people have at your school is more than most.  Be thankful for what you have and question why life is unfair. Grow up, and work to change this.

Read. Read as many books as possible.  And when you finish the reading the last Harry Potter book, don’t spend years griping about how you can’t find anything else as good—pick up something different. Discover nonfiction.  Read the news. You’ve learned all about a magical world. Now, learn about the real one.

One afternoon, in the parking lot, there will be a time when your guy-friend from elementary school asks you out, in sign language, through a bus window.  You will think this is romantic, but, say no. Tell him you like him as a friend, and that’s all you want. It takes more courage to say this, than it does to say yes, avoid him at the school dance later that night, and then break up with him one week later.

Run for student council president.  However, come up with your own speech topic—don’t use the same topic as the girl who won student council last year.  Everyone will know you copied her, including her. When you lose the election (probably because you plagiarized your speech), and when your friend wins (because he is capable and confident and probably wrote his own speech), be happy for him.  Also, recognize that it is super awesome your class voted for a president who is in a wheelchair. How many presidents in wheelchairs do you know? When you are offered the consolation position of class secretary, take it, and work with him. You will learn a lot.

Finally, recognize the difference between good grades and true learning.  You can get good grades and learn almost nothing, and you can get bad grades, and learn more than you ever thought possible.  Focus on the learning—it is this, not the grade—that will stay with you far-past middle school.

Be kind, make mistakes, and pick yourself up when you fall.  Middle school is hard, but as you grow up, you’ll realize the rest of life is too.  For whatever difficult, challenging, dysfunctional thing you are going through, know there are people around you who are going through, or have gone through, the same or similar thing.  Lean on them. Trust them. Be there for them.

The reason things get better even though life stays hard is because middle school is a place where you will start building resiliency that will help you bounce back from challenges and difficulties for the rest of your life.  Take advantage of this time. As your mom says, learn to bounce.

Believe in yourself.  Listen to yourself. Trust yourself.  Stand up straight; open your heart, and know, you’ve got this.

You cannot fail at being yourself.

Yours,

Lauren


 

Follow-Up:  My passion project this year is having students create well-developed, intellectual, and reflective Reader’s and Writer’s Notebooks.  Today, I shared my letter as a sample a notebook entry with students, in a lesson on what it means to take risks as a writer and how to design your own journal prompts. 

Before I introduced the piece, we talked about what taking risks means—what it feels like in our bodies and our minds. Then, I set a purpose for reading by challenging students to look for the risks I took as a writer.  I read the piece aloud, and afterwards, we had a conversation.  Students first discussed their thoughts with a partner, and then we came together as a large group in which students shared their noticings, asked questions, and began a dialogue with each other. 

At the very end of the conversation, one student asked me if I had come out to my parents and if they were supportive. 

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s a journey, and we are in a good place.  I told them, because I think they deserve the opportunity to know me.  And I think you do too.”

The year is just beginning, but I can’t wait to see where our Notebook projects lead.  In our class, it’s through reading, writing, and reflection, that we aim to open our hearts and our minds.

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On the Power of Small Groups

For the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with how to make small group lessons work in the middle school classroom.  Sure, I taught the occasional successful one here and there, but I never seemed to understand how to properly and systematically plan for and implement small groups.

Switching schools and grade-levels this year, I was intimidated by the thought of teaching small groups. The task of looking through student work each night and grouping students based on their previous day’s work seemed daunting.  The idea of pulling eighth graders away from their workspace to meet elsewhere in our teeny-tiny classroom seemed embarrassing. The idea of coming up with just the right teaching point for each small group seemed impossible.

Then I had a training with Dr. Mary Ehrehnworth from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  Currently, I am part of a Secondary Learning cohort of teachers from the American Schools in Spain. We meet a several times a year to train and teach together.  In our most recent training, we met at the American School of Madrid (ASM) for labsite learning. Our focus for the two days we were together was to plan and implement small groups. 

This professional development was one of those magical combinations of theory and practice.  Each day, a typical training cycle went something like this:

  • First, Mary introduced a teaching strategy, based on the Unit of Study.  This teaching strategy was chosen for a specific classroom at ASM. Mary had coordinated with teachers ahead of time, to be sure her training would be useful for the day we were there.
  • Next, Mary explained to us the large-group mini-lesson she was going to model.  Then, she outlined potential small group teaching points that could accompany the lesson.
  • After hearing Mary’s ideas, we, as teachers, discussed, planned for, and created materials for a small group lessons we would teach.
  • Then, we headed out to the labsite classroom.  Once in the classroom, we would watch Mary teach the mini-lesson.  After students were released to workshop, we tried out our lessons teaching different small groups. 
  • Finally, we returned to our training space to debrief and reflect on the lessons.

Between the theory, discussion, planning, and teaching, I left the weekend not only armed with already-made materials for small groups, but also with a framework for moving forward.

Here are three strategies I learned from Mary that changed how I plan for and teach small groups:

  1. Make it about a mentor text.¹
  2. Manipulatives are not just for math.
  3. Get students started quickly and walk away.  Multiple small groups should be happening at once!

1. Make It About a Mentor Text:

For too long, I had been trying to sort through all of my students’ work to figure out exactly where they were, and then plan small groups based on a specific next step in their individual reading or writing piece.  While that sounds lovely in theory, in practice, that meant in order to plan small groups, I would have to be continually reading through student work every night.  Between planning, assessing, and being a human, this was impossible to sustain.

When we worked with Mary, we approached it differently:  We first talked through the whole-group lesson, and then discussed common problems we could anticipate the students would have.  Drawing on learning progressions and the teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum, we were able to identify skills and next steps that needed to be taught for students who were approaching benchmark, at benchmark, and above benchmark.  Then, we created materials based on a mentor text to address these skills.  Students used our materials and our mentor text to practice the skills, and then they would transfer their learning to their own work.

2. Manipulatives Are Not Just for Math:

In the past, gathering students around me in a small group to watch me try to teach them something had been like torture.  I would usually use one of the student’s pieces as a demonstration piece, which was awkward for the student and everyone else looking at it.  After the small group, one student would leave with their piece marginally revised and everyone else would leave confused.  This structure made small groups feel boring and remedial.

New possibilities opened up for me when when Mary introduced the power of sticky notes for small groups.  Mary recommended creating small group activities that are game-like, reminding us, “Manipulative are not just for math.”  She also encouraged us to prepare sorting and ranking activities for small groups, saying, “When you get kids sorting and ranking, they are automatically doing higher level thinking.” 

What this meant is we would use a mentor text to create materials the kids could manipulate and sort into categories in order to practice a skill (see the photos below for examples).

3. Get Students Started and Walk Away:

Previously, when I attempted to implement small groups, I would spend upwards of twenty minutes with one group of students.  I would give a compliment, introduce the teaching point, and then demonstrate a focus-skill with one of their pieces. After that, students would stay in the small group area and work on applying this skill to their own piece while I coached them and, all-too-frequently, helped them prevent mistakes. All the while, I would be scanning the classroom, making sure the other twenty students I wasn’t working with were on-task and doing what they needed to be doing.

Mary’s advice was that we should be teaching multiple groups at once, rather than focusing on one group at a time.  The idea is to get a group started by giving a quick compliment, setting-up a concrete task, and then informing you are going to walk away, but you’ll be back to see their thinking. This gives students time to work together and talk with one another, and it gives teachers time to  start another small group, conduct a one-on-one conference with a student, or give a couple students a quick tip.  Then, upon return to the original small group, teachers can check-in on student progress as students share their accomplishments and explain their thinking. Structuring small groups in this manner creates space for authentic student interaction, teamwork, and accountability.

Putting the Framework to Practice

This past week, my co-teacher, Lauren Freer, and I have been hard at work planning and implementing small groups.  For me, a typical 70-minute lesson looked something like this:

  • Read Aloud: 8 minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: 12 minutes
  • Workshop: 45 minutes
    • Small Group 1 & 2: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 3 & 4: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 5 & 6: 15 minutes
  • Share: 5 minutes

Each day, I planned three small groups:  One for students who needed a little more support on understanding the mini-lesson, one for students who could use a quick review of the mini-lesson and then were ready have their thinking pushed a little further, and one for students who were ready to think more deeply.²

You can check-out some of the lessons we’ve been working on below:

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Note: We are currently in a History Unit, in which students are studying the American Revolution and Revolutions around the world.  The final project is a TED Talk representing their findings.  

Moving forward, Mary’s wisdom stays with me.  She said, “You want students to want to be in your small group.  Small groups should be fun!”

Small groups should be fun.  Fun to plan, fun to teach, and fun to watch students transfer their skills to their own work.  What I’m realizing is planning small groups is a great way to open up a discussion with my team teacher around student learning, student needs, and the progression of our curriculum.  In all of this, collaboration is key.

I’m only at the beginning of my small group experiment, but I am excited for all of the learning in store–both for me and the kids!


  1. Shout out to our Literacy Coach, Jennifer Killlion for helping me solidify this one.
  2. I have a class of 23 students.  For each unit, students have a learning partner. For each small group, I pulled two learning partnerships (4 students).  As I ran six small groups in each class period, I got to work with every single one of my student  in a small-group setting in everyday. I can firmly say this something I had never accomplished (or even really thought possible) in my professional career before now.

How We Talk About It: Processing Parkland, FL

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It was first period. The agenda for the day was displayed neatly on the board, class planned out to the minute.  I had just finished reviewing it with everyone, when a student’s hand shot up in the air.

“Ms. Gould,” he said, “Are we going to talk about what happened in Florida?”

My mind flashed back to my reaction this morning, while listening to BBC, when I heard about the school shooting in Parkland Florida. My stomach sank; my knees went weak. My thoughts jumped back further to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the last time we discussed gun violence as a class.  I remember that day, I cried in front of my students as we read about it.

I looked at my agenda on the board.  There was so much to get to today.

Then, I looked out at the class of eighth graders sitting in front of me.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.

“Yes!” a body of voices answered.

“It’s one of the most pressing issues of our time,” added the initial student who raised the question.

The agenda would have to wait.


Providing a Pedagogical Framework

When discussing intense current event issues, a conversation with a parent from last year, when I was teaching in McFarland, WI, is always on my mind.  This very wise parent said to me, “My son really likes talking about current events in your class, but sometimes he gets so worried afterward.”

This conversation left me wondering:

How can we give students a sense of agency in situations that are far beyond their control?

How can we discuss tough, complex, and unresolved issues in a way that leaves them better off?

As I quickly pivoted my lesson to dealing with current events for the day, my mind also raced to learning standards:

How can we tie current events in with skills we’ve been working on this year?

Read Aloud

We started with read aloud.  I pulled up the article, “Florida Shooting: At Least 17 Dead in High School Attack” from BBC.  I projected the article, and read it aloud, modeling my thinking as I read.  After each section, students turned and talked, sharing what they noticed, and asking questions.

At the end of the article, I posed the question, “What questions do you have now?”

Students talked in table groups, and then shared their ideas with the class.

After a class discussion, we came to one central question: What problems contribute to gun violence?

Research

Then, we moved into workshop.  Students were informed their job would be to find an article related to gun violence, read it, and take notes on the problem.  We related this back to our earlier learning in the year by reviewing what makes a credible source, and briefly touching base on note-taking strategies.  We focused our attention on our purpose for reading (discovering problems contributing to gun violence), and then students were off.

Group Work

After reading and researching, students came together as a table group to share what they noticed.  As a group, they began to list factors they were noticing as problems.   Their responses included ideas such as school protocols, security, the availability of guns, and gun culture in the U.S.

Then, we moved into problem solving.  Building on the strategies we used to address the problems we were having independent reading, today, we approached the issue thinking about spheres of influence.  Students brainstormed potential solutions that could be implemented on a personal level, in our school, and by the government.

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After this, two table groups combined to make groups of eight.  In these groups, students shared their diagrams, which lead to rich discussions on their noticings, facts they read in their articles, and their thoughts.

Individual Reflection

Finally, students returned to their seat and completed a write-out.  They answered the following questions:

  1. After having this discussion, what is one thing on your mind?
  2. Moving forward, what is one thing you can do today to have a sense of agency in the situation?

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Overall, the lesson wasn’t perfect.  Our knowledge on this topic is only beginning to emerge.

But today, the kids had real conversations.  Today was a day where even the ones who struggle to engage were on task, reading, and contributing.  Today, students left the lesson with a specific action they could take to make our school a better place.

Moreover, the reason this experience happened is because one student braved to ask for what he needed.

Our thoughts are with the families of the victims, and all those in the school and community who are affected.  Our thoughts are with those in the U.S. who are intimately impacted by this.  And our thoughts are with the problem-solvers and policy-makers who we hope will help fix this.

However, in the midst of the devastation, I think it’s also important to check-in and acknowledge what we have:

We have a classroom where we can ask for what we need.  We have a community where we can discuss tough issues, try to make sense of the world, and problem-solve together.  We have each other.

And that, I think, is no small thing.

Teaching for Independence: Student-Led Conferences

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One of my goals this year is to teach for independence.  Not only do I want students to have meaningful and transferable learning skills they can apply in their classes and their life beyond school, but I also want them to have an arsenal of learning strategies and the confidence they can overcome challenges in any form.

Studies have show that self-assessment is a key component of moving students forward.¹  Beyond that, I view self-assessment as a life-long skill that is helpful and necessary in any domain.

The way I talk about it with my students is, “You won’t always have me here to give you feedback, but you will always have you there to give you feedback.”

This year, we took conferences as a chance to practice that.

Here’s how we prepared:

  1. We took time in class to self-assess.  Students self-assessed their learning behaviors, their academic achievement, and their progress on independent reading.  We spread out the self-assessments over a couple of days, and each time I reminded the students this was an opportunity to celebrate successes and set goals, to create a resource that would help them lead their conference, and to take time to communicate with me and their guardians anything they thought we should know.
  2. I compiled grade-print outs.  I like having the spreadsheet handy of student grades, so we can reference areas to celebrate and areas in which to set goals. We use standards-based grading, and I find the end-of-quarter grades particularly useful in analyzing patterns and addressing individual learning needs.
  3. I gathered my students’ Writer’s Notebooks.  We had student Writer’s Notebooks handy.  During conferences, when reviewing areas of strengths and challenges, students often reference them to show specific examples of their work.
  4. I framed the conference, setting expectations for the conversation that would follow.  When students and guardians walked in, I took a minute to touch base.  After greeting one another, my standard phrase was, “There a couple ways this conference can go.  (Student name) took some time to self-assess, so we can hear from (him, her, them, etc.), or if you have specific questions or concerns, we can start there.”  In most cases, guardian’s wanted to hear from their students first.
  5. I provided feedback based on the student’s lead.  For example, when the students shared their self-reflections, I would follow-up by sharing what I noticed about the strength they listed, and what I noticed about the challenge they identified.  To me, this felt like an organic way to hear the student’s perspective, share successes, and identify areas of growth as a team.
  6. I asked the parents or guardians, “As a (parent, family member, etc.), what are you noticing?”  After the students shared their thoughts, I wanted to create time for guardians to share their feedback.  After all, they know their students more than anyone else.  I found “What are you noticing?” to be the magic question.²  I learned more from asking this question and listening to what parents noticed than I could have anticipated. Additionally, I think parents appreciated the space and invitation to speak openly about what they noticed with their student and me in the room.
  7. I had a notebook to record ideas and action steps.  Every time a new student entered the room, I flipped the page in the notebook and titled it with their name.  I noted strengths and struggles we identified, and when we made individual plans or ideas for following-up, I noted it down.
  8. I listened for patterns. Throughout the day, I noticed patterns in student successes and student struggles. For example, I heard many of my students say they struggled with planning and organizing their writing for timed writing prompts, such as On-Demand Assessments.  I realized we had spent a lot of time identifying and practicing note-taking strategies and strategies for introducing and explaining evidence, but we hadn’t spent a lot of time talking about how to quickly plan and organize and essay. One of my take-aways from the day is to spend time in the next couple of weeks teaching strategies for flash-drafting.

Overall, I found conferences meaningful, productive, and enjoyable.  It was a time to get to know my students and my students’ families a little better, and a time to constructively problem solve together.

This time, I noticed I did a lot of the note-taking and was in charge of recording next-steps and ideas for the future.  Next time, I want my students to have joint-ownership of this, recording their thoughts, take-aways, or actions steps in their Writer’s Notebook too.


References

  1. McMillan, James H., and Jessica Hearn. “Student Self-Assessment: The Key to Stronger Student Motivation and Higher Achievement.” Educational Horizons, 2008, pp. 40–49.
  2. Johnston, Peter H. “Chapter Two: Noticing and Naming.” Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, Stenhouse, 2004, p. 17.

Problem Solving with Agency

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We had a problem.

My students weren’t reading.  Upon reviewing their 40 Book Challenges (a project to record and celebrate the titles of the books they read independently), I discovered most of my students had only read the required book group books.  Despite continual reminders of our two-hour-a-week independent reading expectation, and regular 40 Book Challenge check-ins, the reading wasn’t happening.

I flipped through their reading reflections, and got continuous confirmation of this:

  • I am not able to read every day.
  • I have not found a good book this year.
  • I didn’t read outside of school.
  • I need book recommendations.
  • I read way more last year at this time than I have this year.

What was happening?

I thought over the beginning of the year.  Due to the amount of curriculum we had to cover in class, my students hardly had independent reading time.  They certainly didn’t have regular independent reading time. My classroom library was still not organized or easy to use, and we hadn’t even visited the school library yet.

My students and I had been doing amazing things, but cultivating our independent reading lives wasn’t one of them.

This made me think about student agency, because while most of the class wasn’t independently reading, there were several students who were reading a tremendous amount.  Several students, who despite the lack of support from our classroom structures, were finding good books, going to the school library, and making time to read.

Why were they able to succeed while other students were not?

Building on my thinking about agency,  my current hypothesis is that a lack of agency comes from a perceived lack of options.  Moving forward with this, my job, then, was to help my students figure out what their real options are.

To do this, I decided my students and I were going to take some time to practice problem-solving strategies.

I gathered the students in our mini-lesson area, and opened the lesson by having them help me brainstorm solutions to a problem that was affecting all of us; a problem that I perceived as my fault: the complete lack of organization in our classroom library. (Our classroom library was still Under Construction)

For the lesson, I took some time to prepare my own writing in my Writer’s Notebook, a strategy I have been working on this year, after being inspired by Mary Ehrenworth’s advice.

First, I provided the context of the problem.  Then, I used thought prompts, which we’ve been working on in class, to push my thinking, and explore what this was really about: a lack of time. After that, I outlined strategies I felt like I had to organize the classroom library and explained why they were unsuccessful for me.

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My Writer’s Notebook, after the students helped me brainstorm solutions.

Then, came the work of the students.  I explained that a lot of times, I think a lack of agency comes from the difference between the options we feel like we have and the options we actually have.  Looking at the “Strategies I felt like I had” column, the students and I realized there were many more options than only the ones I identified.  I asked them to help me brainstorm ideas.

After a turn-and-talk, I recorded their thoughts.  They were full of solutions and excited to volunteer ideas and help.  (You can read their ideas above)

After that, we moved into the next level of problem-solving: institutional solutions.

We discussed how people have control over their behavior, but many times, there are things institutions can do to help set people up for success.

In my example, while it was absolutely my responsibility to get our classroom library organized, there were small changes the school could’ve made that would have made a big difference for me. At first, the students seemed to struggle with the idea of institutional support, but after I gave one example of this, they got it.  They turned and talked, and then chimed in with lots of other ideas.

Now, it was my student’s turn.  Moving into workshop, their job was to apply this problem-solving strategy to their own lives.

Here were the steps for workshop:

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And here are some examples of the work they produced:

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This reflection nailed the heart of the problem: Class wasn’t structured in a way where reading felt important.
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This student’s work reminded me that we don’t really have class structures in place to help students find interesting books.
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This student and I discussed a strategy which could make the commute more productive: audiobooks.
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For students who were successful with the 40 book challenge, they brainstormed ideas to make our class reading community stronger.  We talked about how even if they were successful individually, reading would be a lot better if everyone in our class was reading and sharing ideas.

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Gotta love the student honesty.

At the end, we made a plan, and students did a write-out.  The write-out question was, “What’s the one thing Ms. Gould should really do to help?”

You can see their plans and write-outs reflected in the work above.

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My plan for the classroom library.  (Please ignore the fact that I spelled “labeled” wrong in my hasty demonstration writing.)

 

After reading through their reflections, I made a list of strategies I can use, as a teacher, to help.

Here’s the changes we’ve made:

  1. We take the last ten minutes of class to read.  No matter what.  I set a timer on my phone, and no matter what we are doing, we stop, and read.  With time, I know my lessons will adjust to this, and I will be able to plan so it won’t feel like we have to stop what we are doing.
  2. We set up the classroom library.  We took 30 minutes of class to sort and organize books.  It’s almost done.  We have a committee of students who are taking independent reading time now to help finish getting it set up.
  3. We did a class activity swapping book recommendations.  Students completed a write-in on the best books they’ve read in the last year-or-so.  Then, we did an inner-circle/outer-circle partner interview, where students shared their recommendations.  The best round was when students were challenged to give a recommendation based on what they knew about the specific person they were talking to.
  4. We visited the school library.  I set up a time to meet with the school librarian.  She came to visit our classroom, facilitated the book recommendation activity described above, and then took us to the library.  She pulled out books that were new and displayed recommendations for students.

It’s not perfect.  Not every student has the right book yet.  Heck, the classroom library still isn’t all-the-way put together.

But we’re acknowledging and addressing the problem, and slowly but surely, we’re making gains.

So now, the next steps are on my mind.

Now, we are ready to:

  1. Spend time addressing expectations for independent reading time in class. I notice some students get settled and focused right away, and others aren’t using the time (which they advocated for!) wisely.  We will be having a discussion about what independent reading should look like this week.
  2. Negotiate how frequently we visit the school library.  I wonder if my students want to set up a bi-weekly or monthly time to visit, or if they would prefer to go individually or in small groups when they need books, or if there’s another way they would like to approach the library.  I am going to ask them for their preferences this week, and we’ll make a plan together.
  3. Set up classroom structures for swapping book recommendations. I am playing around with the idea of creating a google doc where students can share their 40 Book Challenges, ideas, and recommendations.  I need to think more about this, but creating structures for students to share ideas with each other is something I want to do.

Overall, we are taking this as a learning experience.  I agreed with the students that institutionally, I can be doing more to help their independent reading lives.

However, we also discussed that moving forward, into high school and beyond, teachers or other adults are most likely not going to be creating space for independent reading.  Therefore, our goal is to get strategies and structures in place for students to support themselves and each other in their independent reading lives.

This is a project we will be working on all year, and a learning an adventure in independence that I am looking forward to.

Mind the Gap

I sit across from the doctor, a desk separating me from the slight, brown-eyed, middle-aged OBGYN who, moments ago, was examining me. From the Spanish I can comprehend, she had just informed me the prescription I was hoping to get refilled isn’t available in Spain.

Now, she is writing something down and simultaneously giving me oral instructions on how to return for a blood test, in the hopes I can obtain a similar prescription.

I nod along, giving the impression I understand. 

Internally, my mind churns.  I am both attempting to process the torrent of Spanish flying at me and subdue the anxiety I can feel rising in my chest.

I leave utterly unsettled. My unasked questions echoing in my head: My prescription isn’t available?  What’s the closest alternative?  What are the potential side effects? 

And, I need to get a blood test, in the morning, after fasting?  How am I supposed to schedule that with my teaching-hours?

The feeling of disorientation is a mixture of confusion in interpreting details, defeat in communicating my needs, and inadequacy in advocating for myself. 

And the worst part is, this feeling is no longer foreign. 


It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote, so let’s take a moment to check-in.  Over the past three weeks, Catalonia and Spain have been at odds. On Friday, Catalonia declared independence, and Spain imposed direct rule.

For those of you interested in a slightly more detailed version of events, here’s a brief overview:

To find out more, check out this timeline by the Independent or listen to the first 5 minutes of this newscast by BBC.

As you can imagine, it’s been a bit crazy here.  Almost every weekend there are protests or some form of organizing in the streets. In fact, as I write this, I hear the drone of helicopters outside. This noise, which I’ve come to associate with demonstrations, media and the police, has been a common occurrence over the past three weeks.


While my region is declaring independence and attempting to establish nationhood, I’ve been studying Spanish (I’m hoping it will still be useful in Catalonia), and attempting to figure out basic life-tasks, like how to best negotiate with my landlord, how to communicate with the bank, and how to navigate the private and public healthcare system (I’m also hoping these will continue to be stable).

These endeavors, which I remember as being time-consuming and confusing in the U.S., sometimes feel near-impossible here in Spain.  Not only am I decision-fatigued from attempting to navigate a new job, a new city, and new roommates, but I am often inundated with information in a foreign language, that I don’t understand well yet. I rely on translations (verbal or electronic) in order to comprehend content.  This often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and dependent on the translator.

Luckily, our school has an amazing Head of Human Resources who is willing to help with almost-anything, and I have awesome friends who are patient enough to help me with Spanish.  Unluckily, no matter how awesome my resources, there are many things I need to do myself.

Which brings me back to my opening anecdote.


I spend the night tossing and turning.  My mind is preoccupied with planning. 

Which day can I miss? We have a six-day rotating schedule at school, and I didn’t know how to arrange coverage for myself yet. How do I set up sub plans?

What transportation can I take from the bloodwork appointment to the school? I normally take the school bus with the kids, and public transportation takes at least an hour. 

If I am getting coverage, will I have enough time?  What time does the clinic open?  I can’t find the information online.

Do I have to call? Attempting a conversation in Spanish is hard!  I feel so stupid because I can’t say what I want.

Finally, morning comes. I get out of bed, unrested but sure of one thing: I need help. 

Cue our amazing HR Head, Ana.  After checking Google calendar, and coordinating both of ridiculously complex six-day schedules, I make an appointment. 

Ana, as always, is patient, gracious, and helpful.  She listens to me, sympathizes, and helps me problem-solve

“Why don’t we just get you an English-speaking OBGYN?” Ana says.

I want to cry and give her a hug all at the same time. 

“That would be perfect.”


In both this situation and many of the other institution/life negotiation interactions I mentioned, I am noticing a common theme:

My lack of agency comes from feeling like I have a lack options.  However, I am realizing there is often a gap between my perceived options and my actual options.  It just takes someone who knows the what the actual options are to show me my real choices.

In this situation, Ana served as my resource to the list of real choices.  She provided me with the name of a medical group that specializes in delivering services in English; she called and talked with them, asking about the doctors available, and then she passed the phone over to me so I could make an appointment. Afterward, we discussed public transportation options, and whom to talk to in order to arrange sub coverage.

What all of this leaves me thinking about is the populations of people who experience the same phenomenon: a lack of agency derived from the gap between perceived and actual options.

For me, both my students and immigrants in the U.S. who don’t speak English well are on my mind.

For my students, I wonder, how often do they feel limited by their options?  How often do they not know how to navigate the school system, and therefore, are unsure of how to advocate for themselves?

For immigrants in the U.S., especially those who do not speak English fluently, I wonder the same.  How often do they feel limited by their options? How frequently do they miss out making the choice that is best for them, because they do not even know that choice is available?

 In Choice Words, education professor Peter H. Johnston discusses the importance of educators providing students with a range of options.  Johnston introduces his own ideas, and then makes a connection to the counseling profession, citing Stanton Wortham’s article, “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.”  Johnston writes, “In school, we try to help children open possibilities by restructuring the narratives they have available. This is also part of a counseling practice (Wortham 2001).”¹

As teachers, we have the power to introduce new and different narratives, new and different opportunities and choices, for our students.  We also have the power to teach students how to advocate for themselves, how to identify when they need to advocate for themselves, and who to talk to in order to figure out their options.

Right now, I am in the process of identifying this for myself.  Over here, I’m figuring out who I can ask for help, and when I need to ask for help.

I am continually aware of my privilege in this: Not only do I have my school, with Ana–who speaks  English, Spanish, and Catalan, and helps me navigate everything from banks to my landlord– but I also have Spanish-Speaking colleagues and friends, who understand the systems and are more than happy to help me navigate them.

For a person without a school or company like this, or without a readily-available network of people helping them, or for undocumented people, I am reflecting on how incredibly difficult this process would be. Setting up a bank account, getting a phone plan, registering my address- all of this would be overwhelming challenging if I didn’t have my school helping me.

Tomorrow, I have my new OBGYN appointment.  While I am not looking forward to another physical exam, I am looking forward to being able to communicate my needs and advocate for myself with my doctor.

In this crazy world of uncertainty and newness, that’s about the most control I can have right now.  And I have to say, I feel okay about that.


  1. Worth S. 2001.  “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.” In A. Ivey, ed., Counseling and Development Series.  New York: Teachers College Press.   Cited in Johnston, P. 2004. “Appendix A.” Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, pp. 89–90.  Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Catalonian Independence: Current Events in the Classroom

“I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

– Eighth Grade Student, Humanities 8C

The last couple of weeks in Barcelona have been challenging.  We have seen the Catalonian people organize and hold a vote on independence. We witnessed the Spanish police react with violence to the very people it is charged to protect, and we experienced the people of Catalonia respond with a workers’ strike.  Now, we face the uncertainty of whether or not our region will declare independence from Spain.

As a foreign teacher at an American school, I have constantly been wondering:

What is my role in all of this? How do I teach about this?

Current events have always been a large part of my teaching, but in a new classroom, in a new country, most of my knowledge about history and social relations, which made me relevant and interesting in the U.S., has been thrown out the window.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.

Following-up with my commitments to learn about and discuss current events, here’s how I am approaching teaching about the conflict:

  1. I am doing my homework:  As I wrote in “You’re doing it now” and “How do we move forward?,” since Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, I’ve been committed to reading the news, both about the U.S. and abroad.  Accessing U.S. news has been relatively easy.  Thanks to the Internet, I am able to use all my favorite news sources from before.  Accessing Spanish news has been more difficult, however, because I do not know Spanish well enough yet to read or listen to the local news. After scouring the web and asking friends for recommendations, I’ve settled on listening to BBC World Service radio every morning, regularly accessing BBC articles, and reading El Pais in English.  It’s frustrating to me to be getting news about the area I am living in from outside or translated sources, but it’s better than nothing.
  2. I checked-in with my students: As tensions rose about whether or not the vote would occur, I asked my students if they wanted to study and discuss current events relating to the Catalonian Independence movement in class.  Through a written vote, a large majority of students said yes. However, a sizable minority said no.  On their ballot, students were asked to provide an explanation for their opinion. Some students did not want to discuss the news because they felt it did not concern them (remember, about 35% of my students are Spanish, 20% are American, and 45% are International Students). Others were worried it would get too tense.  However, several of the no votes also expressed that although they would prefer not to discuss it, they would be okay with the decision to discuss events in class.
  3. I checked-in with my administration: Taking into account my students’ opinions, I decided to move ahead.  In planning discussions about current events, I always want to ensure I comply with school guidelines while teaching.  I’ve found policies for class discussions around controversial issues vary across schools and districts.  When I checked in, our school director, Mark Pingitore, provided guidance that staff are encouraged to discuss current events in age appropriate ways.  He offered that productive lessons may include teachers helping students learn the main facts of events and provide tools to understand multiple perspectives.  Additionally, Mark instructed that teachers are not to share or advocate for our personal position on issues.
  4. We set class guidelines.  Based on a Positive Discipline training I attended two weeks ago, I set aside time for our class to truly dig into expectations we wanted to hold for ourselves while discussing Catalonian Independence.  We first set a purpose for discussing current events in class.  Then, we brainstormed all the expectations we thought we should have.  I wrote down every student idea that was shared, exactly as they shared it, not editing their words for clarity or concision.  Next, after the brainstorm, we evaluated each of the expectations, comparing them with the purpose of our discussion.  You can see our process below:img_9905-2.jpg
  5. We used current event texts to learn specific, transferable reading, writing, and researching skills.
    Before the vote, we read news articles from multiple sources, using nonfiction reading strategies to gain information from headlines and preview texts before reading.  During reading, we made charts of facts we knew and questions we had.  We discussed the limitation of studying events occurring in Spain through news sources written in English.  We split up into research coalitions, with some students researching events through Spanish-language news sources, other through Catalan-language news sources, and yet others from English sources or sources from their native country.  We discussed source bias, and the importance of evaluating news sources to understand what we read.
    After the vote, we dug into the personal, writing narratives of how the events of the weekend impacted us personally.  We had an author’s chair, and students shared their experiences and opinions.  We studied the structure of police forces in Spain, learning about the different levels of the force (The Guardia Civil, Nacional de Policia, Policia Local), and we tried to make sense of what it means when the police attack the very people they are charged with protecting.  Then, we moved into a larger analysis, looking at global and local factors that affect and influence the Catalonian Independence Movement.
  6. We connected our learning to our current Humanities unit.  And through all of this, our current curriculum continues.  We are in the midst of an Immigration Book Group unit, another topic that is both relevant and timely.  To make all of this fit, we usually spend the first part of class studying current events and the second part of class studying immigration. Lately, a typical class will start with reading a mentor text. We spend about 10 minutes of class studying a news article, watching a video, or listening to a clip from news broadcasts or a podcasts about Catalonian Independence.  Then, I model a reading, writing, or researching skill to help us analyze and understand the content presented.  Next, students apply the skill I demonstrated to their research and reading on immigration, so they can more deeply understand their book book. Finally, students bring what they learn and are noticing both about Catalonian Independence and immigration to their book group discussions.

Yes, we are little behind in our curriculum, but it is so, so worth it. A conversation I had on Friday morning, solidified this for me:

We were on a middle school overnight trip in the Pyrenees.  On the final morning of the trip, I stayed back at the lodge with students who were not feeling well.  After resting, the students and I strolled the grounds.  We picnicked in the grass, and took in views of the mountains while discussing current events.

One of the students is in my Humanities class.  She told a story of WhatsApp group message that included many students from the eighth grade class, and discussed how people were sharing ideas and debating what they thought through messages.  She said she was thinking about the event from different sides, and realizing that she can have her own opinion on the issue.

At the end of this, she looked at me and said, “I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

To watch this student strengthen her voice, realize she can think for herself and form an opinion that is both unique and informed, might be the coolest thing I’ve seen in Barcelona yet.

So, while uncertainty looms ahead, and we’re not sure what country we’ll be living in next week, for now, our classroom is a solace.  It’s a place for us to explore, to process, and to study events as they unfold.   Come what may this week, we’ll have each other to help one another figure it out.