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The Power of Connecting and Conferencing

With the start of a new school year comes changes, challenges, and chances, and this year was no exception. With only six weeks of the school year under my belt, I’ve experienced all three in a variety of ways that sparked me to share some important points. Change this year came in many forms, too numerous to list. When it challenged my ability to utilize Making Meaning with my 5th graders, I took a chance and spoke up for what I believe is right for students.

You see, I’ve watched the four core principles that are embedded in the work of Center for the Collaborative Classroom (CCC) change the game for my students and me, and help us grow as lifelong learners. I say us, because I firmly believe that teachers need to read the books their students are reading so recommendations made during student conferences are authentic. Not sure about those four core principles? I’ve used each one to highlight amazing moments of this already action-packed year.

Honoring and building on students’ intrinsic motivation leads to engagement and achievement.

Having had the ability to interact with 13 of my 19 students beforehand, I was fortunate to know a great deal about most of my students’ reading lives before they even walked in the door this year. We made gains together, but I most certainly wasn’t finished with them yet! As I conferenced individually with each student for the first time this year, I saw the areas where the reading pieces had fallen into place, and the areas we still needed to tweak.

Every single student was able to identify a reading growth goal for themselves that I would have set for them. Take Tate for example. His oral reading fluency rate had doubled since I first read with him in fourth grade, but he openly admitted that he still hates to read. Being one of the only students in my room who gravitates toward reading solely nonfiction books, most classmate recommendations don’t hold a lot of weight with him. He wants to like reading more and if I don’t keep reading to find just the right book that’s going to spark that motivation inside him, who will? Jessica and Jake want to escape annoying little sisters, and they do that by finding quiet places to read about relatable characters who feel their frustration. Michael wants to read in English and when he answered my questions through a student translator, I learned that I will be able to help him do that by reading about sharks and reading the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series.

Last but not least, there’s Aaron. Aaron marches to the beat of his own drummer and is like an adult living in a child’s body. Our first conference this year was eye-opening and was the light bulb I needed for differentiation, even if it means he’s the only one doing it. Yes, I differentiate for student needs, but I will admit it’s usually in the direction of intervention more than enrichment. His conference answers aligned exactly with the first core principle. He told me, I know what books interest me, and I’m quick to understand, but I do it best if I’m interested it. Out of the mouths of babes! It instantly clued me in on why he has time-management issues. Thanks for the wake-up call, Aaron!

teacher listening to a student read a book

Fostering caring relationships and building inclusive and safe environments are foundational practices for both the student and adult learning community.

This summer, I participated in a Twitter chat hosted by a district colleague that focused on teachers reading Sunshine State Young Reader Award (SSYRA) books so we could recommend them to our students. Always an avid Young Adult reader, but having previously taught second and third grade, it’s only been in the past three years that my students have pushed me to read a wider range of books because they could read them, too. Participating in the chat helped me reestablish what I learned the summer before from reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. Hulsman Hill (which is what I’ve named my pile of to-read books thanks to Miller) has turned into an entire bookshelf because I can’t make it through a Twitter chat without buying something from Amazon! I am thankful to have my Professional Learning Network to push my thinking. As adult learners, we are constantly learning about new ideas that challenge current thinking and if you are aggressively reflective in your practice, as I am, ideas get pushed to the back burner because others take precedence to align with current needs. The idea of reading because I want to authentically help the children in my care LOVE reading is one that can’t take a back seat! All the professional growth books will have to sit on the shelf for a bit because my focus is on my students.

I love that six of my students are new to me and that we are working on building an environment that makes them feel safe and comfortable, too. Thanks to the SSYRA chat, I showcased the titles from the list I had in our classroom library. Ashley was drawn to them and on our first visit to our school library, she chose the winner from last year, Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. A few days ago, she came to me and said, I just can’t get into this book. I tried, and it’s just too slow. Having not read it myself yet, we were able to have a fantastic conversation about how intrigued I was that it won this big award and yet she didn’t enjoy it! I asked her to check it out in my name and bring it back to me so I could move it to the top of Hulsman Hill. I can’t wait to continue the conversation with her. It’s an experience we’d miss if I didn’t believe in reading my students’ books, too.

Classroom learning experiences should be built around students’ constructing knowledge and engaging in action.

One of my most recent thought-provoking professional learning experiences was attending the Florida Association of District School Superintendents (FADSS) Standards Institute. What was new for me was the idea of the shifts. No one was asking me to completely undo or redo what I previously learned. All we need to do is shift. The biggest shift for me was the concept of building knowledge. Social Studies has always gotten the short end of the stick because it isn’t a tested subject. We can no longer do our students the disservice of scrimping on the content areas. We must build their knowledge through text sets and meaningful learning experiences, and realize that comprehension is not a transferable skill. I know roughly two things about baseball: there are bases you need to run around and if you get three strikes, you’re out. Ask me to read a passage filled with baseball nuances and information that I have to sift through by reading between the lines, and I’m toast. Give me a similar passage about football and I’ll ace it. See the difference? If students haven’t constructed knowledge about a wide variety of topics, they are not going to be successful when asked to comprehend, no matter what grade level we teach.

Armed with this information and the knowledge from my conferences, I know my students and I need to engage in some exciting action steps this year. First, I have the challenge of helping my students love nonfiction and other genres outside of their current interests. With graphic novels and series books at the top of the list for most of my students, I’m going to empower readers like Tate, Sabreena, and Eliza who love history, historical fiction, and nonfiction to share with their classmates. I’m also going to capitalize on statements like the one from Sierra’s conference: I’m dying to learn about states! Almost all of my students shared that they are nervous to read aloud because they’re worried about looking silly or making mistakes. I’m going to use that to help with our speaking and listening standards and our growth mindset work. Thanks to Miller’s work, I’m also toying with the idea of having some requirements that will push my students outside their comfort zone to try new genres and build the knowledge they need. When Alex tells me she doesn’t have a favorite book, the words “Challenge accepted!” go off in my mind. She loves reading, but before she leaves me, she’ll love at least one more than most. Thanks to my adult learning community, my students will be better equipped to meet the challenges of today’s rigorous standards.

The social and academic curricula are interdependent and integrated.

Working at a school that’s fortunate enough to participate in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, we participate in weekly class meetings where we discuss a variety of topics that students are dealing with in their respective environments. Our Making Meaning class meetings align with this classroom expectation and students already shared this year that they love the books we read together. Having read three books from the program so far—The Lotus Seed, Something to Remember Me By, and Everybody Cooks Rice—many students could connect the social pieces of their lives to those of academia. Sabreena, our only Vietnamese student, beamed when two of the three stories brought her culture to light and she could feel like an expert. So many cultures were highlighted and I was able to make a perfect segue to the Heritage Day we’re holding next month, which will allow all the families of our community to share a piece of their lives through culinary delights. As much as some teachers hate to think it, our students’ lives don’t revolve around schoolwork. We’re preparing them to be equipped for life beyond the classroom and as Aaron said, I’m not sure I want to change my genre interests, but I want books that will inform me and help me with my work in life, not just school. I got in this business to do exactly that and I appreciate him bringing that back to the forefront of my thinking.

See? I know that everyone involved in my educational changes this year wants what is best for kids. I also know that each of us feel the pressure to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. As you can see, it’s a breath of fresh air for me that the work I’m engaging in with students allows me to do both. It will be June before we know it, and I will be sad to see my students go. However, I know that we will all be better academically and socially with the help of having amazing reading lives built on these core principles.

Originally posted November 11, 2015

Samantha Hulsman is a fifth-grade ELA and math teacher in central Florida. With 15 years of experience in grades 2–5, intervention, and academic coaching, she loves figuring out how to connect with every student who comes through her door, anything involving technology, and being a lifelong learner. Follow Samantha on Twitter at @srhulsman.

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Comments (1)

Wow! Samantha. This was a

Wow! Samantha. This was a great read and luckily did not get put on Dickman's Hill! I planned to read one or two lines and then put it a copy in my pile for later. I could not stop until every word was in my head. Yes. It will soon be June. And each of the students in your charge will have spent a year with a teacher that truly gets what matters in education. Your students are lucky souls to have landed in your room. Keep up the great and inspiring work!