The Notebook Investment

It is not uncommon for a teacher to ask me about notebooks. It is not uncommon for me to squirm under the pressure of that question. Why? Well, notebooks take investment and time, and if there is one thing I know about teachers, it’s that they’re already invested and time is something they’ve been searching for since they started this profession.

However, notebooks have changed the heartbeat of my classroom. They’ve given me something to fall back on as evidence of student growth; they’ve given me ways to form flexible groups around specific writing needs; they’ve given me a place to connect one-on-one with every student I’ve taught— no one gets missed.

Here are some musts for the notebooks in my classroom. They aren’t the musts for your classroom, you’ll have to make those up for yourself and change them as you go. Hopefully this list will give you some ideas as you start working with notebooks or help you think of a way you can change your list (mine changes every year).

  1. Everyone must use a composition book. I learned quickly that in order for me to bring them home and read them, I had to have them all the same size so they fit in my bag nicely (Plus the spiral bound ones tend to rip).
  2. Write every school day. The kids will write, if you give them the time.
  3. Each new day, must have a date. It doesn’t mean they can’t continue writing from yesterday, it just means you know where they ended and started. It helps me keep track of how much writing is actually happening in Writer’s Workshop and helps me to help them build stamina.
  4. Model for them. You have to show them in mini-lessons what skill you’re looking for. Then when you collect the journals, you know what to look for in their writing.
  5. Only revisions on the left. Perhaps one of my favorite rules, this lets me know if kids are revising, because that work will be done on the left. It also encourages them to leave the original work on the right. I can now trace their thinking and give feedback. Or get on them if they’re not revising ☺
  6. Read them. Everyone has to read the journals. The kids with their writing partners who offer feedback and leave it in their journals. You can read them alone and write feedback at the end, OR have the student read it to you in a conference and offer feedback.
  7. Follow up. If you gave feedback, if partners gave feedback, writers need to be held accountable for the change OR for the “Why I don’t need to change” argument.
  8. Don’t always tell them what to write in there. In order for them to feel ownership, they need to decide. Usually when kids say to me, “I don’t know what to write today.” I respond with, “Oh cool! You get to try a generating strategy first, which wall chart are you going to use?” Generally, they respond with an eye roll and then get started.
  9. Treat the notebook like gold. Make a big deal when a notebook is lost. Make a big deal when someone disrespects a notebook (throws it on the ground, reads someone else’s without being invited). Make a big deal when all the pages are filled with words. The more you model this, the more the kids will understand that notebooks are important.
  10. Put down your red/purple/whatever color pen your using. Be human. These kids are writing amazing stories of growing up; you’ll miss them if you’re always looking for correct comma patterns. Every child is doing something right in their writing, notice it, tell them, and celebrate the writer in front of you.

I’m sure I have more rules. I’m sure I could share more. But honestly, I learned the most about notebooks by diving in, flailing my arms a little, and then investing deep into the writing lives of my students.

Happy Writing Everyone!

a moment just before

“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.”
—A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I’ve found myself sitting here, in the moments just before, wondering where summer went, wondering if I’m ready for the days ahead.

Maybe I should back up a bit; I’ve forgotten something here. . . .

I’m more than excited to tell you, that I’ve taken on a new role in the morning as a Literacy Specialist for 7th and 8th grades. Wahoooooooo! I’m still teaching in the afternoons, but my mornings are about to be busy in a whole new sort of way, and so I’m wondering if I’m ready for the days ahead.

I’ve been dreaming about this very job, living in this “moment just before” for what feels like forever. Honestly I wouldn’t trade any minute of my in the classroom time, but I’ve always wanted to work with adults, to hand them resources, to help them hunt for the perfect solution.

Maybe it has taken me so long to write this to you, because I don’t have the words for the gratitude I’m feeling right now, for this chance, for this dream come true.

But for right now, I’m going to savor this quiet just before we begin; I’m going to remember my roots and how I got right here; I’m going to be thankful for the journey.

Guest Blogger Amy Petrilla: Still Standing

Here at notesfromahappyteacher, we love all teachers (side note we also love guest bloggers). But, we especially love Amy Petrilla. I can’t tell you the amount of times she has pulled me though hard teacher stuff, and reminded me why I am ahappyteacher. She’s done some reflection, and I am proud to share it with you. Her voice is real. Her voice is authentic. Her voice is the future of teachers who are sticking with their craft.

 

After six years of teaching in the field of special education, I think I may have beaten the statistical odds of burn out. I’m pretty sure that at times those odds were winning, but I find myself still standing. For six years my worlds of special education and general education have collided, and especially after this past year I have continued to learn so many things that I wish I could have applied to my past teaching years.

 

No I have not been perfect and yes I have made plenty of mistakes, but this past year really stirs up my first major feelings of failure in my teaching career. I was given a brand new age group (and the youngest age group yet), and I absolutely did the best that I could; however my regrets had nothing to do with this particular group of students. All year I called on important people and the best-practice research around me as a guide. By the end of the year I realized how far my students had come. This caused me to remember students from past years. I have recently learned so much from which my former students could have benefited. Again, I know I did the best I could with them and they certainly made progress (and I think some of the best progress was not actually on paper- it was the smiles and acceptance of my students finally into regular education classrooms). Yet, I feel that I had failed those students. That I had made mistakes. That if I had only known what I know now, I could have done so much more for them.

 

But this is the most important thing that I what everyone reading this to know: fighting through the mistakes is crucial. No wonder why the most excellent teachers are ones that think outside of the box, aren’t afraid of the fall of failure, and who are continuously learning and growing and seeking out the best information- always striving to better themselves for their beloved students.

 

Every so often my mind slips back to a few years ago when I had my first challenges with the politics of special education and inclusion. Recalling these times instantly renews my fire and drenches any ominous flames of burnout or fears of failure. I have learned so much, but I still have a lot to learn; and I have a whole new group of students waiting.

 

My job is not done. I am not done. I am still standing.

 

So, I will leave you with a personal journal entry from those times when I was literally fighting for my students’ rights. My entry is not pretty or even politically correct, but it is real. And I believe it is applicable to more than just a special educator’s life:

 

This passage is written with the terms “us” and “we” and “they” and “them” because that is unfortunately the language that the world identifies with:

 

“We have dreams and fears.  We can feel and we can care.  We have talents and intelligence.  We can love, as well as laugh and cry.  But we can be confused because sometimes it is hard to find our ‘voice.’ We are misunderstood, overlooked, swept under a rug.  Convenient? Maybe you only see us if we serve you some particular purpose. Maybe you only see us as numbers and statistics. But we are more than that.

 

Don’t over look us, but don’t pity us. We are deep and intricate; we are beautiful. Will you be our ‘voice’? What will you say, and what will you do? How will you love us, and what will they know about us because of you? Do they realize that we are real people, not just a CNN news special or a Lifetime movie? This is reality. How will you react? Will you be defeated, or pass the responsibility on to someone else? What is your purpose, and will you help us find ours?

 

The world is tough enough, so fight as you can. But don’t shelter us. And don’t let them get the best of you.  You see us for who we truly are- and when you remind yourselves of that, your minds become untainted and fresh. Be sharp, but don’t forget about love. Persevere, but take it one step at a time. We are always changing. We are constantly growing. And so is the world. And just like them, we have something to say too. Will you be our ‘voice’?”

 

So yes, students, I will be your voice. I am eager to learn with you and to experience mistakes with you. I have not given up.

Letters from my kids: True Admissions

I love letters, especially letters that are from the heart. It’s doubly good if they are handwritten.

 

I’m not gonna lie this year’s group of kids loved writing letters. They wrote letters to me all year long. But, end of the year letters, oh they’re my favorite, there is so much to reflect on . . . and it gives me one last chance to hear each of their sweet voices before another teacher steals them away.

 

And so I’d like to share these with you, because I think it’s okay with them. Here’s a few lines from the letters that let me know I might be doing this teaching thing right. . . (Disclaimer: I could have typed many many more of these, but each paragraph is from a different kid and well, I think you’ll get the point.)

 

 

Dear Miss Smith aka Rachel, Smidty, RSmidty, the teacher that watches Harry Potter with students ect . . .

This letter is written on the last blank salvageable page in my journal! So this letter is nothing short of important to me, as I’m sure it is to you. This letter will probably not feature many writing strategies and/or sentence patterns, but this letter is from the heart.

I’m not gonna lie, coming into this year I thought I was going to HATE your class. I didn’t like writing, reading, or Language Arts in general. I came into your class with a chip on my shoulder, because I honestly thought all I was gonna do was be miserable. But then you opened my eyes to a different type of writing, not writing to boring prompts, but what we wanted to write about. I can’t thank you enough for that . . .

I enjoyed how you don’t believe in writing prompts and that helped me with my style. It gave me a chance to really find what and how I like writing. I will admit I didn’t like writing everyday, but when I started realizing I actually could write good things, I became proud of all my writing! It shows me how I grew as a student. Thanks for teaching me to be me.

The atmosphere of the room was great. Having the time to work with our partners really helped me engage in my writing. I also liked how you let us use our iPods in class to concentrate on our work. Last but not least, I loved the lights off and having your lamps on.

And I still remember when you gave me The Maze Runner and I was obsessed with reading. To be honest, before I read that book, I used to open a book and pretend to read, but you got me into it; you’re the best.

One of the most helpful things was to listen to your words. Any teacher could tell you to write, but you showed us how (with amazing examples from you). I also love how you put feeling into your writing or when you read a story.

Before I walked into your classroom, reading and writing was pretty much the death of me. By the middle of September, I found myself staying up late, just to finish my book. You taught me so many things I’ll never forget. I learned that the semicolon is used for more than just the winky face, if you want something chase after it cause you never know what will happen, and that FANBOYS are awesome.

But one of the most important things that has come out of this year is becoming a writer. A real writer.

 

Those are my kids. Oh how we learned. And oh how much it makes me smile that they admit it . . .

Guest Blog: See Ya Later, Not Goodbye

The following is a letter my students received from Evan in their last days of school. Evan came alongside us for the journey this year, to learn and write with my kids. However, as you might have learned to expect from my classroom, it became so much more. I cannot thank Evan enough for his heart for my kids, for slowing down his crazy schedule to let fourteen-year-olds know they are worth being invested in, and for reminding me when days got rough, that I have the best job on earth. Thank you Evan.

I’ll just add that if you’re a teacher, you need to read this. Evan has no training in education aside from what little I’ve been able to cram into his brain, but look at his passion, and look at his recognition of your hardwork. Evan may not be a teacher, but we can all learn something from him.


 

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

And so we’ve reached the end of another milestone, not just for the year, but for the hallways and the classrooms that these students have come to recognize for fun as much as for learning. A four-year eternity that holds the pivot point from child to young adult. A microcosm of time that’s forged friendships, and challenged a few— a first handhold and a breakup too. It was the time when tastes were made, from characters in books that we’ll continue to grow with, to questionable fashion trends, we’ll laugh at in years. But for all these moments big and small, parents, teachers, and students learn to scrapbook the good, and just scrap the bad, proceeding towards a future filled with as much frightening uncertainty as soaring possibility.

Parting is sorrow.

For as much as I want to explain to these students that this period of time is nothing more than a blip on the radar, a tiny bite of what great is to come, I can’t help but not take my own advice. I’m overwhelmed with a sadness that’s only possible once you part ways with an experience that has molded you into a person you never knew you were capable of being. I felt like a best friend, someone that shared experiences with equally wide eyes. I felt like a trail guide, a reassuring voice that calmed fears. I felt like a parent too, not a day went by that I didn’t ask Miss Smith how each class went. I got to learn their names, their personalities, and their strengths. Rooting them on from the sidelines, I cheered when they did great, and wanted desperately to help when they tripped. I felt invested in them, because they showed me it was worth it. Lastly, I felt like an educator. In a building that houses brilliant teachers and staff, I’m proud to know I touched a fraction of the greatness they work resiliently to maintain year after year. I’ve realized my normal life is a break compared to the extensive work they put in 365 days a year, and to temporarily walk the halls for a few days makes me feel nothing short of grateful.

Remembering is sweet.

But it will be the great times that I choose the remember, and for all that leaves me, and us, in this coming week, the unbelievable adventure we all shared will always flood my head and heart with happiness whenever I reflect. Basking (and getting burnt) under a May afternoon’s sun, dancing to Taylor Swift from the speakers of a supercar that, for a brief moment, it felt like we owned. Getting to work with you as a class, a group, and individuals, hearing your stories and trying to help; hearing your stories and knowing I couldn’t, because you were just fine. I broke through the barriers of publicly discussing and critiquing my work, because needing help and feeling vulnerable is hard but crucial, and in turn you felt confident to share your work, because through admitting a fear we shared together, our writing (and ourselves) grew. Videos I loved to make, relationships I’ll always have, and a chance to take back the school dance I never had— this single year at Twin Valley makes the other 25 in my life kinda’ bland.

Thank you.

Thank you for embracing my work and I. For opening yourselves up to my challenge, and raising a bar I wasn’t sure could even be touched. You’ve surpassed what I thought an 8th grade class could accomplish. From the bonds and friendships, to the personalities and dedication, my time with you has meant the world. And so if parting is sweet sorrow, then I’ll hardly consider this goodbye. I’m optimistic that your stories will grow big, and I’ll see them again someday. Be it through Miss Smith, a local paper, or at a McLaren dealership— I’ll see you. And when things get rough, I’ll be there in memory or simply a few cities away. So this isn’t goodbye, more like a see ya later. To me, that thought is so much sweeter.

—Evan W.

8th Grade Formal— PhotoBooth

 

An Open Letter To My Students:

Dear Readers, I forgot to share this letter with you. It was meant for my students, and while they have read it, I feel it is important to share with you too, because you have become part of this journey. Thank you for joining along with me this year or for as long as you have been reading. Thank you for your comments and constant hits on the site, even when I lag in posting. Enjoy!

 

 

An Open Letter To My Students:

On the first day of school, the look on your faces when I told you to read five books by the end of September was priceless. And then when I told you, to write for twenty minutes a day on top of that, the fear in your eyes almost made me back down. But at seven years into teaching, I’ve learned not to trust your eyes, at least not in moments like that.

However, the truth is I wasn’t sure if you could do it. I mean my fancy teacher books, blogs, and workshops had said that you could, but I wasn’t sure. It seemed like an insane amount of reading and writing. Even when I asked my Mom about it, she thought I was crazy (and my mom, well she’s my teacher expert hero). And so what you might not have heard in the mist of your fear was the trepidation in my voice— and maybe that has been our journey. Fear.

Maybe what you don’t know about me is that I love safety. There is nothing more comforting than knowing an outcome before a task has begun. In my past, if I didn’t know the outcome, I simply would have found a different way. The risk of failing, the risk of getting hurt or worse being laughed at, has always been too great.

Yet for some reason this year, the fear felt like less of a “stop right there” and more of an “I dare you to try”.

I was at a crossroad in my career passion and you gave me your hands, your pencils, and your trust. At night, sometimes I would wake up panicked, wondering if I had a lesson that would engage you, wondering if I was giving the right amount of feedback, wondering if I was still the teacher you needed me to be.

Then came you. You guys took what I gave you, and brought it to the next level. You exceeded my expectations academically, forcing me to raise the bar again and again. But that wasn’t all; you got excited and started dreaming too. Soon your dreams and ‘what ifs’ became our new curriculum. I wasn’t alone at all; I had 75 people planning with me, giving feedback, dreaming bigger.

I need to thank you for pushing your fears aside. I need to thank you for giving me the freedom to teach you as individuals. I need to thank you for allowing me to fail and for dreaming with me again.

After 180 days together, these are the messages I hope we both take home: When life hands you a healthy dose of fear and you’re not sure you can go on, know that sometimes when fear whispers it’s less a place to stop and more of a dare to press on. When your plans fail, when something doesn’t work, and everything falls to pieces— keep dreaming, keep chasing after . . .  there is a supercar just around the corner.

In closing, I believe children’s book author A.A. Milne has said it the best, “If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together . . . there is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Sincerely your teacher, mentor, coach, editor, hairdresser, stain remover, relationship advice giver, DJ,  fearless dreamer,

 

Miss Smith

 

7 days lucky

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

—A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 

We have 7 days of school left. It is not enough time. Do you remember this phase from last year? Ah yes, I go insane and worry, worry, worry, run, plan, worry, hug— then they’re gone.

 

I don’t even like Memorial Day; I mean I like what it stands for, but could we switch it? Make it two weeks later? I did not want to have off today, not one bit.

 

I am not going to write long, just enough to let you know, I exist, and that this time of year demands every ounce of me in a much different way than all the other months.

 

And so, I’m off to jot some last minute notes to students writers. I’ll get back with you, hopefully before my face is wet with the tears of another round of goodbyes.

 

If you’re a teacher like me, try to treasure the insanity of these next days. Sit next to the kids you know need to be heard. Chat with them in the hallway and invite them to have lunch with you (or horror of horrors, go have lunch with them). Take these last days, and let them know just how lucky you feel . . .

Photo credit goes to Evan— if you like the style of this photo e-mail me at rachel@notesfromahappyteacher.org and I’ll get you in touch with him. 

#McLarenTV

It all started with test prep. I mean, I dread test prep; I value its importance, but I dread test prep. So with persuasive writing test prep, the easiest and maybe one of the most important things I do with my kids is to have them write to a prompt, because really, I don’t give them writing prompts all year, so this practice is important.

Somewhere between test prep and moments of testing anxiety only a teacher can understand, came McLaren.

I know nothing about cars. But, I can definitely pick out a cool car. So what would be cooler than persuading the McLaren MP4-12C to come see us at school? Well, if it actually worked, nothing would be cooler than that. In fact I think it would make test prep authentic, which is really the reason I hate test prep in the first place, the lack of authenticity in the process.

When we started writing our persuasive letters to McLaren and our Principal, I was all about the details— that is providing valid persuasive techniques, putting the thesis statement in the right place, a genuine rebuttal that actually helped the paper. Somewhere in the middle of all of this, I realized their reasoning had persuaded me too, learning about this car was one of the most educational things we could do for them and if I could make it happen, I would try.

Before I knew it, the science teacher was involved doing materials science labs and talking about the strength of a carbon fiber body. Then the kids were building their own rubber band powered racecars, and it was happening, it was actually happening.


Our math teacher brought the whole project to a new level, planning out McLaren math and getting the kids to figure out Drag Speed Coefficients and things I do not understand at all. He was even e-mailing the Chief Engineer over at McLaren England; I mean really. And so what had started as a really painful test prep lesson became a community building, learning experience, across three curricular areas— oh and one really amazing day with The McLaren MP4-12C!

 

 

 

 

During this project, I saw my kids do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. They struggled and didn’t give up: Each subject area really raised the bar with this one, we all expected things out of them we were not sure they had the ability to do. We all watched them fail; we all watched them try again, more than once.
  2. The helped each other: Without me suggesting it, without thinking that if they helped one team they might not win a prize, they selflessly shared tips with their core group of friends and people they rarely talked to. They really wanted everyone to succeed.
  3. They smiled: I see them smile everyday, but this project had some really excited smiles from kids who sometimes struggle to find a reason to smile (See screams of joy when Chad turned on the car stereo and played Taylor Swift for them and gasps of awe as Matt opened and shut the car door).

Then again during this project, I saw adults do things that really really really impressed me and tugged at my heartstrings.

  1. Jon, Donna, Jen & I worked together as a team: We each changed lesson plans, we each conducted research above and beyond, we were flexible and supported each other in the way coworkers should.
  2. All the people at McLaren Philadelphia and McLaren helping us and making us feel like family, answering our questions along the way, and being excited for us: They didn’t have to, they weren’t making a profit for this, they valued us when we had nothing we could give them in return.
  3. Chad, Alison, and Matt giving up their day to be with us: They stayed way longer than expected; they brought gifts for the kids; they answered countless questions. They got sunburn!
  4. Evan, typically a star in our classroom, came in to help us build cars, take photos, and make sure I stayed sane at the end of the day.
  5. Gerald Catagnus, our principal, who saw the value in our plan and welcomed McLaren into our school.

A Footnote:

This past summer, I attended Columbia University’s Reading and Writing Project Summer Institute. I remember one class I took with Colleen Cruz, author of Reaching Struggling Writers. Maybe what I remember the most, without looking at my notes, is that if you draw on something kids already think is fun, and then apply writing to it, they’ll be more likely to give you their best work.

Generally speaking, I thought I was pretty good at doing just that. However, it was in this class that I realized I may have been missing some pretty valuable teaching tools. Sports. Video Games. Hunting. Cars. Anything, that I might have previously labeled utterly and totally ummm boring boy?

I made my mind up this summer, that I would open my mind. I would try harder with a topic that my kid’s love, even if the very thought of the topic would be utterly vapid for me.

But in the end, this project, this undertaking, was anything but vapid. In fact it sits high on my teacher shelf of things I loved teaching, loved learning about, and I still can barely believe this all happened to us.

 

**There was a press release for this day, hence the kid pic love I’m totally able to post. If you love style of these photos, email me at rachel@notesfromahappyteacher.org , and I can set you up with our amazing photographer Evan.

 

Our Own Masquerade

Bronx Masquerade  is my secret April weapon; it has been since 2002. Since 2005, I have read this book aloud to three separate classes each April (National Poetry Month). That’s over 21 times reading the same novel aloud. It has not gotten old. I love this book. I would like to give Nikki Grimes a hug.

It’s the story of a high school English class, told by the students who are learning about poetry and The Harlem Renaissance. Each student takes a turn writing honestly about his or her life, and then writing a poem that is read to the class. By the end of the book the students view each other differently because they recognize the struggles each has to go through.

It’s a story of removing masks, revealing true identities, and embracing poetry/writing.

Slowly, slowly, the book takes us over, and we feel like our classroom too is going through the change. We are real with each other; we learn that there are some parts of each person’s story they had not dared to share before. Slowly, Slowly, the masks come off and we become inseparable.

Here’s a section of one of the poems from the book . . .

I woke up this morning

exhausted from hiding


the me of me


so I stand here confiding


there’s more to Devon


than jump shot and rim…


I dare you to peep


behind these eyes,


discover the poet


in tough-guy disguise….

don’t call me Jump Shot

my name is Surprise

 

If you are a teacher and thinking about using this book in your classroom, please be advised it does contain mature topics. I would use it for upper middle school or high school. If you are a parent, read it with your kid and talk to them.

Every Moment Counts

Minus the first month or two of school, these last six weeks are the weeks I feel most alive. State testing is over, the kids fully understand my expectations, and there is a constant ticking in the back of my head to make every moment count.

These are the weeks of meaningful revisions, of purposeful read alouds, and never sitting down. If you’re a teacher, and dreading “the end of the school year unfocused disease” that sometimes plagues students, here is my secret: get passionate and take your kids along for the ride.

We almost have too much going on in our classroom right now. I have lists upon lists and even then I’m forgetting things. But, it’s okay because the kids, they’re on top of it; they’re engaged; they’re holding me accountable for good teaching (even in the middle of the 8th grade formal, high school move up day, and a field trip white water rafting). How?

Well here’s a list I’ll share, hopefully in the middle of all of this I’ll find a way to write you a post about each one . . . and if not I’ll do it all on June 6th, through my tears of letting them go.

  1.  Read Aloud a book that gets everyone thinking in a new way: Bronx Masquerade
  2.  Youtube videos to show them people who are real and living literacy rich lives: Sarah Kay
  3.  Real conferencing— asking hard questions, flexible skill groups, and keeping track of everything: Confer iPad ap love
  4. Literature Study where they choose the groups and the books: Free Choice Kid Love (Reading Hunger Games for the third time with your besties, totally okay)
  5. Bringing People in, Having outside events: Gallery at Café 110, McLaren Cars (OMG more on this one later), a real musician/word man, a writer or two, maybe some parents too . . . never a dull moment.

I realize I haven’t posted on here in awhile, but it’s not because I haven’t been ahappyteacher, it’s more because sometimes being ahappyteacher and having a life means that you’re exhausted at the end of the day. So maybe I’m exhausted, but hey I’ll be exhausted for them any day, they’re my kids, & I love them.

welcome the new man in my life 🙂