Monday, August 30

My Interview and Comment Writing

When I checked my Tweetdeck one afternoon, I saw this!

Any 50-or-60-something year old Twitter users out there? Looking for someone who'd chat for a story we're working on.

So, I responded with:

Pick me! Pick me! I'm a passionate twitter user in your age bracket listed.

I then got a tweet with an email address so I wrote…

I am a 50 year old teacher (51 next month) who is devoted, dedicated and delighted by Twitter.  It has refreshed and rejuvenated my teaching career.  Because of Twitter I know have a blog and I've become one of the moderators for a weekly chat called #elemchat.  Through Twitter, I've made friends with fellow teachers all over the world.  I'm even planning a trip to Morocco to visit a new friend I've never met. 

If you are looking for someone who is passionate about Twitter, then I'm your Twitter 50 year old.

The next email was a request for my phone number.  Now, this is where some people would have shut down the whole thing and suspected something shady.  Not me!  I quickly provided my cell number.  What could be the harm?

Five minutes later, the phone rang and I spend about 15 minutes talking to Doug Gross from  See…. it all worked out.  I shared with Gross my reasons for joining Twitter, what it means to me and how it enriches my life.   I think I made him laugh and I also told him to interrupt me at anytime because I can talk forever!  I heard his fingers tapping on a key board while I went on and on.

The next day, my daughter tracked me down to tell me the article was posted on  I asked her if they mentioned me at all and she gleefully said, “MOM!  You’re in the first line and throughout the article.”  Now, in the scope of my life experiences this is not monumental, but it did give me a giggle.  I’ve never been interviewed and I like that I was totally me – overly enthusiastic and very chatty.

Suddenly, I began receiving so many new followers on Twitter that I could barely keep up.  Many people tweeted that they saw the article and enjoyed reading it.  Some tweets were a little creepy, too.  I shared with friends and family that I was interviewed and continued my push to get everyone to understand and join Twitter. 

Granted, I was a little worried about the first sentence of the article where it seems as if I were “bashing” my school. “Nancy Ehrlich was nearing 50 and frustrated, teaching at her small Pennsylvania town's elementary school with colleagues who didn't share her love of technology.”  Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, but for me, it is true.  I wasn’t judging them.  I needed an outlet and found one. (OK… I know I sound defensive here.) Luckily, they don’t follow twitter!  (Also, it does feel a little strange that everyone knows my age as well.)

So for a few days I was a mini-celebrity, which was fun.  Then, I noticed the comments at the bottom of the article.  It made me wonder about people.  As many of you know, I’m a glass-half-full-gal who is frequently accused of being overly optimistic.  I don’t understand why people choose to spew venom in a comment.  I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, but do they have to be so mean?  Some of the comments were so angry that I just wanted to give a great big hug… or a get a restraining order.  Why would people take time out of their lives to write such hostile and distasteful comments?

I’m really glad I’m a teacher.  I don’t think I would do well in the big, bad world.  I spend my days with children who typically smile at me.  When someone does something inappropriate, we talk about it and work toward resolution.  Our days are spent embracing respect and responsibility.

The anonymity of comments seems to give many a free –pass.  Maybe some comment writers were absent from school on the days that stressed expressing yourself appropriately.  Most of the reading I do on-line is written by teachers and they seem to be an enigma in the world of comments.  Teachers are people who share, encourage, inspire and promote one another. 

We may disagree, but we do it with good manners.

Thursday, August 26

How do you teach writing?

A friend of mine asked me the other day how do you teach writing to your students?  What materials do you use?  I started to list the curriculum that my school uses and then, stopped.  Because she is a dear friend, I told her my secret. 

I don’t use the curriculum that the school provides.  The official “writing” book is really pretty and kid friendly, but it doesn’t do what I need it to do.  At the beginning of the year, I distribute the book and it sits in their desks until I take it back at the end of the year.  At least there is no wear-and-tear and the books are like new. 

I teach writing all day long and in every subject.  There isn’t a moment during the day that I’m not teaching students something about writing.  I saturate them with writing.  I expect them to write well and throughout the day.  Families know that if they get Mrs. Ehrlich, the students will learn to write.

From the very first day of school, they write.  Regardless of their age or what grade I’m teaching, I start at the beginning with paragraph construction.  I have a no-fail formula that makes writing concrete.  When I have the same class again (looping), the review makes them giggle.  They laugh at the simplicity of the lesson.  I expect students by the end of third grade to construct multi-paragraph essays.  I constantly build their stamina for writing. 

All day long, I model, and model and model.  Every moment is a chance for me to say something about subjects, predicates, complex sentences, linking verbs, helping verbs, and most importantly, paragraph construction.  My students know I love to write and laugh at my enthusiasm.  My goal is to make it contagious. Throwing writing into every lesson is innate and instinctual.  I try to develop “muscle memory” so it become automatic for them.  I make writing a priority and meet with students one-on-one and support, remediate, cajole, encourage, cheer lead, etc.!  Writing conferences are as important to me as reading conferences.

So, when my friend asked me how I teach persuasive, narrative, expository, descriptive, etc., I didn’t have a quick answer for her.  It’s all in my head.  And, I also change the way I teach these based on the needs of the students.  I have to differentiate - I don’t know how to do it any other way.  Then, I create detailed and unique rubrics that match each lesson.

My goal this year is to try to write about how I teach writing.  How do I write down on paper what I do so that I can share it?  Is this the ultimate contradiction? Do other teachers follow a teacher’s guide or create opportunities?  How do you teach writing?  I really want to know.

Tuesday, August 17

Hope came back!

Did you ever notice when you read a blog, and suddenly, you need to write one, too? One blog leads to another!  Then, someone tweets it and it leads to more inspiration and another blog. It seems to have a domino effect that picks up steam as it moves.

That’s how I ended up here.

First, I read “Love them before you know them” on Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.  (This is Pernille Ripp’s blog and Greta Sandler was dropping by to post before the launch of her own blog.)  Here I found an eloquent and heart touching story about the difference a teacher can make through small, although powerful, moments of caring.  I was flooded by memories of similar moments in my own career.  Did I stop to appreciate them?

Then, this led me to “What are you looking for?” on Principal of Change.  This blog challenged me to look at every child as a future – not potential, but done-deal leader! Furthermore, Couros asked me to consider what I will look for in my students this year.  It was one of the moments that before I navigated away from the page, I knew I would reflect and write a blog about it.

See…. One blog leads to another.

Greta Sandler(@Gret and George Couros’ (@gcouroswords created a swirl of emotions and were the catalyst I needed to organize my own thoughts.  Lately, as I move closer to the school year, it seems as if I keep visualizing a “wordle.”  I thought creating my own Wordle might be a good method  to help me sort out the clutter of thoughts in my head.  I randomly started typing all of the thoughts and feelings that were trying to push forward, even if the emotion repeated, and this is what happened:

The message is hope!  Of course, I will be enthusiastic, work hard, persevere, etc., but I’m starting this new school year with hope, not tucked so deeply inside me, but bubbling forth with a colossal cacophony.  I've often been accused of being the eternal optimist as if it were a negative thing.  My friend hope took a beating last year and was badly bruised.

Due to my Twitter PLN, and most importantly #elemchat, the un-conferences such as #edcamp Philly and #ntcamp and the on-line community of bloggers, I’m rejuvenated. These super-powers have used their words and messages to make a difference.  

This will be my 29th year in the profession that defines me and inspires me.  

I have hope.

I hope I appreciate that I spend each day with people who typically smile at me.

I hope I remember to laugh at myself when I make mistakes.

I hope I look at every student and remember to really see him or her... not just glance away quickly.

I hope I connect with my students, even if it is just a gentle touch on the shoulder or a little wink as I walk by.

I hope I never stop searching for the leadership and greatness that every child has inside.

I hope each day is one of true grace where my students and I learn with each other.

So, here’s my blog because I read someone else’s who read someone else’s and so on.  Thank you for enriching my life and helping hope come back.

I’m off to read another blog!

Saturday, August 14

The Fake Book Report

For years and years I assigned monthly book reports to my students.  I’m sorry!  

Each month I would pick a genre and painstakingly put together a beautiful graphic-filled packet that described the project I expected.  They weren’t going to read a book and write a paragraph….oh no!  They had to create detailed and intricate projects.  The depth of projects included dioramas, mobiles, sandwich boards, character boxes, etc.  It was craft heaven – or hell depending on your view.

When my daughter was in elementary school, she loved to read and loved to do projects.  She would read her novel, gather her craft supplies and triumphantly present me with her finished project amidst a swirl of glitter.  My son, on the other hand, well, that’s a different story.

On the first day of fourth grade he came home from school dragging himself and his backpack.  He announced that the worst thing ever had happened.  His teacher was Mrs. H. – the queen of crafts.  My son hated anything requiring glue or cutting.  Not only were there monthly projects, but weekly projects.  At parents’ night when the classroom and hallway were filled with “oohhs” and “ahhhs” for the countless number of exquisite projects, there sat my son’s attempts off to the side.  I was a parent who cheered and encouraged, but did not assemble!  I wanted it to be his work.

I began to wonder about what I was doing in my own classroom.  Why did some of my friendliest and most supportive parents seem tense around book report due date?    Didn’t they love discussing the book and then creating projects that demonstrated their grasp of setting or plot or characters?  This was supposed to be authentic learning!  I was teaching not only literary elements but time management skills.  Wrong!

Here’s what I learned.  Many families were faking it.  Students were choosing books that they hoped I hadn’t read.  They figured out how to read the inside jacket or back cover and produce projects that were time-consuming and tiresome.  Or, on the other hand, some chose the simplest book so they could finish it and get to the business of crafting.  Was a love of reading happening here?  I don’t think so.

Many of the projects so exceeded my expectations that is was almost miraculous!  Parents were arriving on book report day beaming with pride as little Johnny looked guilty.  You can imagine what had occurred.  Other more forthcoming parents would pull me aside and let me know quite strongly their feelings about these projects.  It was time to re-evaluate. 

For many students, demanding that they read a book in a certain amount of time and then create a masterpiece will insure they hate reading. Granted, there are many students who love the creativity and craftiness and they can easily produce a project.  What is the solution?  Where is the balance?

The answer is choices!  Just as it is vital that students are given choices about what they read in the classroom and at home, they need to be given choices on how they reflect their comprehension and learning.   This doesn’t mean that students get a free pass.  As 21st century teachers, we must be cognizant of technology and more importantly, use it!  Our tech- savvy students should create using tools that are meaningful in today’s world.  They could do a pod casts, power points, voice threads, Animotos, blogs, etc.  We need to be open to different means of how students communicate learning.  Of course, the use of glue, glitter and construction paper are still options, too.  The key seems to be a willingness to look at traditional methods in new and innovative ways.
So this year, my fourth graders will have a wealth of options for reflecting there learning. I can’t wait to see what they create.

(By the way, my son’s fifth grade teacher the next year did not believe in book reports!  It was his favorite year and he read constantly.)

Tuesday, August 10

August 10 for 10 - NancyTeaches' List

The other morning I checked Tweetdeck and this is what I found.  
I was ready to respond, “Yes, count me in” without even checking out the link.  We literacy lovers will do anything for each other.

Once I visited Reflect & Refine: Building a Learning Community, I knew for certain I wanted to participate in this special event.  Fortunately, I had brought home my picture book collection with a goal of reviewing and organizing it this summer. 

I am passionate about Reader’s Workshop and use picture books in every mini lesson.  Along with teaching comprehension strategies (activating prior knowledge, making connections, visualizing, etc.) I integrate the use of them with story elements (character, plot, setting, and theme.) Below is my top 10.  I’ve organized them by story elements, but saved my all time favorite for last!

Character: The heart of the story.
Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban, Pictures by Garth Williams
This is one of the best-loved characters in children’s literature. This book helps students focus on how characters reveal themselves in everyday situations.  With the right dramatic voices, this book is an attention grabber and creates an intimate atmosphere where students can make meaningful connections.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (Winner of the American Book Award)
This breathtaking and moving story follows the main character from childhood through old age as she helps make the world a better place.  This book reveals how a character’s life story can provide clues to who the person is on the inside.  Students learn to make inferences and determine importance.

Crow Boy by Taro Yashima (Caldecott Honor Book)
In this book we meet a “tiny boy” who is different and left out from the group.  He is an unusual, yet sympathetic character. This book shows students how and why a character can change.  Students learn to synthesize information and change their thinking. 

Plot: What keeps you interested.
Ming Lo Moves the Mountain by Arnold Lobel
Using traditional folktale repetitive structure, students watch Ming Lo struggle with his problems.  This book provides a clear and simple problem/solution plot and provides students with a way to make predictions and summarize events.

Brave Irene by William Seig
By using a fairy tale setting and humor, students find themselves in an adventure packed adventure. Through this book, students learn how one problem can lead to more problems.  It provides opportunities for children to visualize, make connections and summarize events.

Setting: how to look closely and far beyond.
When I was Young in the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant
We learn about the author’s childhood in the Appalachian Mountains and rural life.  The author uses repetitive language, which helps students focus on the many clues that describe the setting.  Students can practice visualizing and inferring by learning about a character’s life.

The Day of Ahmed’s Secret by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland
This book provides an excellent opportunity for students to learn about life in unfamiliar settings as well as a culture different from their own.  The main character travels through the streets of Cairo, Egypt on his journey to show his family his accomplishment. Opportunities to make inferences, summarize, synthesize and most importantly, visualize are provided throughout the story.

Theme: what is the message of the story?
Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle Pictures by Susan Jeffers
More than 100 years ago, Chief Seattle gave a speech encouraging people to take care of the earth.  Along with the eloquent words, students will see some of the most breathtaking illustrations. This book helps students explore a theme that addresses a world problem.  They can activate their prior knowledge, make connections and synthesize and determine importance.  (Perfect for Earth Day.)

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (An African Tale) by John Steptoe (Caldecott Honor Book)
Based on an African tale, we meet two very different daughters who want to win the King’s heart.  The enthralling story provides a powerful message about the value of goodness and kindness. The illustrations are stunning and help send the message of the beauty of love. Students learn how a character’s actions and choices reveal a theme as they infer and synthesize.

All categories: Favorite Picture Book of all Time
Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, Illustrated by Barbara Cooney
This book touched and charmed me the very first time I read it.  Not a year of teaching has gone by where I did not read this book – regardless of the age.  Along with character, plot, setting and theme and all of the comprehension strategies, it promotes imagination.  It is a magical book that never diminishes in appeal or beauty.


Friday, August 6

Want children to love to read? Throw away reading logs.

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During my early years as a classroom teacher I wanted every student to love to read as much as I did.  I thought by sheer desire and passion, they would eagerly embrace the joy of reading.  They would jump up and down with excitement when I assigned their reading homework.
Well, that didn’t work.  They would rather watch TV.  Reading was for school only.

I reflected on this attitude and decided to make reading prize-worthy!  I set up a system where every time a student finished reading a book, I would punch a hole in their reading card.  When the card was filled, they got to shop for a prize to celebrate.  Well, you can imagine what happened. There were many accusations of cheating and students were spending more time figuring out how to beat the system than read.

Next, I decided to make it mandatory for every child to read every night for a set amount of minutes.  I naively thought they would do it.  Wrong!  They all claimed to do it, but parents informed me they weren’t reading and it was a battle.  Some students admitted that they didn’t read and their parents just signed the log anyway.  Not a good way to foster a love of reading. Furthermore, I began to review what was happening in my own house.

At the same time I was attempting to grow passionate readers, my son was in elementary school and he had a nightly reading log. Although it pains me to share this, and although he has a reading specialist for a mother, he didn’t like to read.  (His strength was math! Go figure!)

Each night we would sit together on the couch.  I had my book to read as I wanted to model good reading habits and he would grudgingly hold his.  Each time I looked over at him, he was asleep.  I would nudge him awake and plead with him to finish his minutes.  The teacher wanted the reading log signed by parents.  When I asked him about why he didn’t enjoy reading, his response was, “I had to read all day at school.  This is more work!”

All of these unsuccessful events led me to the conclusion that reading logs turn kids off from reading.  Making parents sign a reading log to prove a child read for a certain amount of time makes them partners in turning kids off from the joy of reading.  What is the solution?  How do we share that reading is a life-changing, passionate, totally enriching experience?

It begins by talking.  We must talk to children about their interests.  I’m not a big science fan, so reading a book about it would be a chore I wouldn't want to do. My son’s passions were numbers and sports. I helped him choose books about these topics.

He worried that some of the books weren’t challenging enough, but I told him not to worry. All I cared about was that he was reading!  (I met with his teacher at the time and explained that the journey began with baby-steps! She agreed with my plan.) Slowly, we found more and more books about sports and stories about math. Next, I encouraged him to read magazines and newspapers.  Finally, I encouraged him to talk and talk and talk about what he read.  I gave him permission to abandon books he didn’t like. This was a "novel" idea for him; he didn't have to like everything or finish everything.
At the same time, I was doing all of this in my classroom.  I started listening to my students.  I read what they were reading so I could share their experiences.  I would get them talking about what they read.  At first, they loved the attention and then, even the most reluctant reader, began to read just because of the joy it brought.  I started greeting them by asking, “Did you find out what happened to the character?  Did he make it across the river?”  This generated excitement and connections.  Reluctant readers saw the enthusiasm and conversations that I was having with other students, and they wanted to be included.

Admittedly, some students are slower to become passionate readers, but at least we no longer count minutes. Each night my students have homework and on their homework log it says, read for pleasure.  No counting books or minutes.  No parent signatures.  Just read.  Just enjoy!

Sunday, August 1

The Readers at Jury Duty

I had jury duty this week.  Well, not really because I wasn’t chosen.  I had “wait duty.”

When I hit the three hour mark of waiting. I began observing the reading habits of my fellow potential jurors.  The room was populated with people of all ages.  It was quite a sampling of our society.  There seemed to be about 100 people in the drab room.  As I looked around, I wondered about the reading habits and history of my fellow jurors.

Some people read newspapers and seemed to move their heads up and down as they glanced about the pages without ever landing long on any one item. 

Others were flipping the pages of magazines as they scanned the articles and looked at pictures. 

Many were engaged in novels and barely moved at all.  I tried to see the covers of the novels and mostly observed male mystery authors.  There were equal numbers of hardbacks and paperbacks.  I only counted one kindle – no iPads. 

Of those surrounding me, about ¼ of them were wearing headphones.  Only four of us were on laptops (I was the only Mac) and there was only one netbook.  I lost track of those that were napping or texting on their phones.
While I nonchalantly observed those around me, (I know it isn’t polite to stare) I wondered what their experiences were like in elementary school.  Some readers were so engaged that nothing could distract them.  There were a smattering of foot shakers and fidgety ones who seemed to have trouble sitting still.  There were the “jumpers” who kept jumping up and down, changing seats, getting drinks and going to the bathroom.  (I won’t mention the gum chewers, but I was thankful for my ear phones.)

What experiences did the engaged readers have that caused such complete stillness?  Was it the book they were reading?  Were they the fortunate ones who had great teachers who showed them that a novel was a joyful and totally engrossing experience?

Did some find their own path to enjoying reading after suffering through the drill and kill worksheets of their elementary classrooms? 

As I watched some flip about aimlessly, I wondered if they struggled with comprehending what they read.  Did their eyes scan back and forth, but they had no idea what the passage meant when they got to the end?   I so wanted to go ask and offer to help.

I am preparing for the new school year and my goal is to remember that the way I teach reading can affect my students' habits for a very long time... 

It is a precious responsibility.