Life in the Now

Let’s face it, middle school is hard. Not necessarily academically—although for some kids that is true. But it’s hard because of the place it is: the middle. Students aren’t little kids even though things like recess and stickers and “potty humor” still tickle them. They aren’t true teenagers focused on college and careers. They are literally stuck in the middle. Socially, they’re trying to figure out who to be. Physically, I might have a 6’4” boy sitting next to a 4’9” boy. Some of my girls may look like they’re nine and others 19. Middle school is hard for my students. When I tell most adults what I do, they take a step back and say how awful middle school is, usually because they’re reflecting on their time in that space.

It’s also a hard place to be for adults. Not because teaching middle school has been described as “like nailing jello to a tree” or “herding cats” or middle schoolers have been called “hormones in sneakers” (to be honest, most days my seventh and eighth graders make more sense than most adults, probably because my students are age-appropriate), but because as educators, we are also stuck in the middle. We aren’t seen as the nurturing, pinterest pinning, crafty folks in elementary school (even though we are), and we aren’t seen as the content specialists of the high school (even though we are). We’re somewhere in between. All at once I can be asking students to explore a work of literature through a specific lens and telling a student to get their fingers out their nose and go wash their hands. But I digress; I think middle school teachers are sometimes to blame for being seen as these wayward folks stuck in the middle. Or at least I am, for this reason:

How many times a week, a month, and grading period do I find myself saying, “At some point in high school, you’ll need to…” or “Next year, the teacher will expect…” or “On PARCC, they may ask you…” As these phrases are flowing out of my mouth, my brain is screaming, “SHUT UP! They’re not learning for next year, high school, or the test, you poor misguided teacher.”
I’m not focusing the students on learning for the now. I find myself telling them that the learning they’ll do later is what’s important. Why don’t I see as what I’m doing in this moment, as what I’m doing in the middle, as important?

The answer to that is complex. And it’s one that I’ve recently thought about quite a bit. I’ve been participating in a virtual book study, dear reader, through NCTE. We’re studying Teaching Reading with YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives. And while I wish this book study was not concurrent with the last weeks of the school year as anyone who has spent any time in schools knows the last 20 days of school moves simultaneously fast and slow and throws a million and two things at you that need to be done RIGHT NOW. I barely see my family the last weeks of school let alone have time for a book study, but this opportunity was too good to pass up. Thus, I’m behind with my reading, but I’m still participating. Chapter three of the book explores creating classroom community. Buehler writes, “The work they’re being asked to do isn’t merely preparation for some future task; it’s important right now.” And this sentence stopped me dead in my tracks. Dead. Tracks. Staring at the page, I heard all those statements I made this year imploring students to pay attention because what they were learning was going to be important in the future.

This chapter in the book is one that I am very interested in because creating community in my room is very important to me. It’s part of my practice I’ve studied. It’s part of my practice I continue to improve. So when I read “The work they’re being asked to do isn’t merely preparation for some future task; it’s important right now” (Buehler 53) and thought about all the times I’ve said they need x for the future, I thought about when I said these things. I breathed a bit easier when I realized I said them in conjunction with the argument writing unit or lit analysis writing or a piece of text that wasn’t my favorite but was in the curriculum. When didn’t I make a statement about the importance of what we were doing for the future? When we were in reading workshop.

What is about reading workshop, then?

Reading workshop is sacred to me. It is the only part of my block that is a “non-negotiable.” Regardless of how short a block is cut, how many interruptions happen, how many students are absent or if I’m absent, reading workshop goes on. I am deliberate in this planning. This is intentional on my part because I feel that it shows the students what I value. I value reading. Reading for pleasure. Reading to soothe the soul. Reading to make sense of our world. Reading to escape our world. I don’t have to say to the students that I value reading. I don’t have to say this because saying it doesn’t mean they are going to listen. Showing them what I value, however, means they will internalize what is important to me. They see this upon walking into my room the first time. I have small wooden crates designed to hold 12-18 paperbacks lining the counters that fill up the side and back of my room. These crates are stacked at least two high and in some places three or four high. When my initial stock of wooden crates was filled up, my husband used them as a template and built me more. He continues to build storage for my books as needed. People who have never been in my room before comment on my books the first time they walk into my room. Usually the sight of my classroom library stops them in the doorway. Students will comment that my husband will need to make more crates as I continue to add books to the library.

My actions show them what I value. I booktalk a new addition to the library each class. Reading time is not shortened or pushed aside for anything. Ever. I talk about my reading life. I talk with them about their reading life. I take student recommendations seriously. I seek out the books students tell me I should read or get for the library. I get to know my students. I get to know their reading life. I make recommendations for them but the ultimate choice of what they read is in their hands. These recommendations become important to them. How do I know? They email me from high school. They email me from college. They share what they are reading. They ask what I am reading. They ask for recommendations.

During reading workshop, I don’t focus on where they need to go as a reader. I focus on where they are. On who they are. An important part of my educational philosophy is meeting the students where they are and taking them where they need to be. It harkens back to a question from grad school courses about who does the accommodating in the classroom? Is it the student’s responsibility or the teacher’s? Meeting students where they are is much harder in a writing lesson when I have grade level standards and PARCC tests breathing down my neck and the student is three grade levels below where they are expected to be. However, in reading workshop, meeting students where they are is really easy. What do you want to read? Gordon Korman? Jane Austen? Great! Read that author. Read that book. In minilesson, I’m able to focus on a specific strategy that all can work on regardless of their reading level. I use picture books for this. Why? They are easily accessible for all of my middle schoolers. And the best part? They speak to the little kids my students still want to be. It might be a favorite like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst or The Grouchy Ladybug by Eric Carle. It might be a new book like This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen or They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel. Then they are given time to read and focus on the skill or strategy from our minilesson. I’ll read for a little bit because we should all be a community of readers, and my students should see me read too—not just hear about my reading. Then, I conference with students during this time. I take notes during conferences, but those notes are quick summaries after we’ve met. I reference those notes so I know if I have to follow up with anything from our last meeting. I’ll begin quite simply with “How’s it going?” This is a great way for me to take the pulse of the student’s reading. Then we’ll talk through whatever our minilesson is about. This is the magic of the conference. I’m able to meet my students where they are and help them move to the next level—without saying, “Next year, your teachers will expect…”

For example, I use They All Saw a Cat to talk about point of view. My conference will ask students about the point of view of their book. We’ll talk about how that point of view shapes their understanding of character or conflict or theme. I might even be able to recommend another book based on our conversation.

Reading workshop allows us to practice mindfulness with our reading. We’re in the middle. We are not focusing on what happened grades before (and why we hate ELA now) or what we’ll need to know in later years. We are simply in the moment, and being in the moment allows us to enjoy our time with books, reading, and the community surrounding both.

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