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What I Learned from Going Back to the Classroom…and What I’m Reading This Summer to Learn More

I started my career as a first grade teacher and spent ten years in the primary grades before transitioning to becoming a literacy specialist. Even so, when my district asked me to go back into the classroom this year to help provide cohorts small enough to teach in person, I did have that sneaking fear: “What if I forgot how to do it?” Though it had been fifteen years, I was relieved to find that it was like riding a bike. Muscle memory kicks in and you start to remember old routines, management tricks, and organization hacks that help make that immense, multitasking job more manageable. 

Once I got into the swing of things, it was actually a lot of fun to have my own class again. I got to know a small group of kids so well, with the the privilege of hearing their daily news of lost teeth, birthdays, and sibling antics. We got to create our own classroom culture full of inside jokes, shared stories – “Remember the day when the lights went out?!” – and little traditions, like sharing riddles and singing the Guacamole song on GoNoodle. In so many ways a classroom is a family, and this time with this family has taught me so much. 

So what did I learn from this year and what will I take back into my literacy specialist role next year? It’s going to take a while for the fog of pandemic teaching to clear. But at this moment, I am reflecting on how literacy – reading, writing, speaking, and listening – is so intricately woven through every minute of the day. Math may be the best example – it is overflowing with language. Students’ ability to explain how they solved a problem or why their answer is correct relies heavily on the clarity of their oral language.  Students must listen to their peer’s explanation and envision what is being described so they can decide if they agree. The math workbook is one long, complicated, nonfiction text that many second graders struggle to understand. Teaching students “how to read” the directions and wordy story problems could be a whole unit of study on its own! 

The examples of how literacy is threaded through the subjects goes on through science and social studies. But just as powerful is how students’ ability to speak and be understood, as well as listen and understand, is the bedrock of their social emotional learning. So many disagreements on the playground and in the classroom are rooted in miscommunication. Our classroom climate was only as strong as our ability to slow down and listen to each other. If I were to go back to the classroom again next year, nurturing speaking and listening skills would be at the heart of my daily instruction. 

So my summer stack of professional books – which, let’s be honest, I most assuredly won’t get all the way through – is filled with books that pique my interest in how to get kids talking more, listening better, and then using their voices to create powerful classroom communities.  If you have a title you think I should add to this stack, I’d welcome the recommendation!

  • Made For Learning: How the Conditions for Learning Guide Teaching Decisions by Debra Crouch and Brian Cambourne 
  • Engaging Literate Minds: Developing Children’s Social, Emotional, and Intellectual Lives K-3 by Peter Johnston 
  • Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad
  • The Responsive Writing Teacher : A Hands-On Guide to Child-Centered, Equitable Instruction by Melanie Meehan and Kelsey Marie Sorum
  • Hands Down Speak Out : Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math by Kassia Omohundro Wedekind and Christy Hermann Thompson

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