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Pre-school jitters (or, I have no idea what I’m doing)

Okay friends, school starts in just over a week, and I’m feeling it. When I’m honest with myself, I realize that I really don’t know what I’m doing, and that’s terrifying. I mean, I’ve read a lot about how to “do” workshop, and I’ve had some training, but I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in my classrooms (yes, plural; that’s a story for another day…). I don’t know all the skills that I need to teach. It truly is panic-inducing to think about all of the unknowns.

On top of that, there is a lot of uncertainty going on right now in my home life. It is enough to have me feeling like I’m on unsteady ground all of the time. I want to start the school year off with a clear head and clear direction, but I’m having a lot of doubts. So I know that I need to just take a moment, put my laptop down, perhaps do some rage cleaning, and just breathe.

I don’t want to start the year off feeling so unsure, but I don’t have any control over what life throws at me. I can only control my own response to it. So I’m going to take a break, clean (seriously, my house is a mess!) and enjoy this beautiful summer afternoon. I can go back to planning when the sun has set and the kids are (hopefully) asleep. By then, perhaps, I will have a clear mind to tackle some of these questions. If not, I might search up some videos on YouTube about workshop. Or maybe puppies. Whatever puts my mind at ease.

Day 1 is planned. Now what?

It’s my last week of summer, and I’m fortunate to spend some of it with my family at my dad’s cabin in northern Minnesota. This is my view right now:

It doesn’t get much better than this. (Truth be told, I’d prefer an ocean view, but Minnesota isn’t close to any oceans, so the lake will have to do.)

So, while my husband and parents are out golfing and my kids alternate between playing, arguing and snacking, I’m enjoying the calm and thinking some about my vision for the first weeks of school.

Beyond day one, which I talked about here, my focus in our first few weeks will be on diving into writing workshop while building community and beginning to explore our identities.

For the past few years, I have started the year with a short unit on the stories behind our names. I have found that it’s a powerful way to build community while practicing reading, writing, listening and speaking in a variety of ways. This year, I will adapt this unit to fit the workshop structure.

We will use “Mi nombre” from La casa en Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, first as a quick write and later as a mentor text to write our own name stories. I will also use the short video of actor Uzo Aduba talking up growing up with a Nigerian name that English speakers find hard to pronounce. You might be thinking to yourself, “Wait, this is Spanish class. Why is she showing a video clip in English?” And to that I would simply say that my students are all bilingual, and sometimes the content is so valuable, it’s worth sharing, even if it’s in English. To me, the content of this video clip is extremely powerful. My students found it to be incredibly relatable, and enjoyed the humor and craft of the storytelling as well. We will watch the clip and then write about it. I’m excited to see where students go with their writing about this piece.

The final part of this intro unit has students ask a parent or other family member how their name was chosen. I start by telling a story about how my parents chose my name, and I also talk about how my husband and I chose our children’s names. I provide some questions and students come back with the answers. Hopefully, it gives them an opportunity to connect with a family member in a meaningful way. At the very least, they get to hear a story that they otherwise might have never known. We will write these stories, using “Mi nombre” as our mentor text, and then we will sit in a circle and share our stories.

I’m still looking for another text or two to use with this unit. I’m using “text” in a broad sense here: written, visual, audio, anything really that might relate to the topic of name stories. If you have any ideas, please share them in the comments, and let me know how you start the year with your heritage learners!

Starting The Year Off Write

The first week of school is fast approaching, and I’m already battling my usual pre-school anxiety. But this year, in addition to the typical back to school nerves, I’m even more anxious because I am completely revamping how I teach my Heritage 1 course. For as much as I have read and collaborated and prepared, I still kind of feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.

Photo by Pixabay on

It’s not the first time I’ve made major changes to my course. In fact, last summer I completely rewrote my curriculum, and it was overall quite successful. But after I was introduced to writing workshop, I realized that it was the direction I really wanted to go in. Every year I say that I want my students to learn to be better writers. Yet every year, even when I add more writing assignments, I fail to add more writing instruction. It’s not really all that surprising; after all, I never learned how to teach writing.

So, this year is going to be different. In addition to my focus on independent reading, I am adding writing workshop. Students will write every day, and I will be teaching them specific writing skills that we will work on together throughout the year. No more wishing that they magically improve their writing. This year, I have a plan.

Part of that plan is jumping into our routines on day one. It worked for me last year with independent reading (actually, that went even better than expected), so I’m hopeful that it will work for me this year, too.

My plan for Day 1 (August 19!!!) looks like this:

  • Welcome students / Warm up with some questions about how they feel about reading and writing in English and in Spanish / Go over objectives for the day
  • Read aloud: 10 Cosas que quiero que sepas de esta clase
  • Quick write: Students will write about the letter we read (NOT a summary of it) for 5 minutes
  • Revision: Students will read their writing and revise it to make it better for 2 minutes
  • Share: Students will read their writing (not summarize it) to a nearby partner of their choice (3 minutes)

When I’m honest with myself, I recognize that this will likely take the entire 50-minute period. But because I always over-plan (hello again, anxiety), I have also planned some activities to jump into our independent reading. These include doing brief book talks on a pile of high-interest books, and giving students the opportunity to browse the books and read some of them for a couple of minutes to see what they might like. Again, I’m fairly certain we won’t have time, and that’s okay. I can always start with that on Day 2.

My non-negotiables for the year are that EVERY DAY students will:

  • Read something they choose
  • Read something they understand
  • Write about something personally meaningful
  • Talk with peers about reading and writing
  • Listen to a fluent adult reader read aloud

These came from a presentation by Amy Rasmussen (find her at her blog, Three Teachers Talk), and they really resonated with me. So why not start on Day 1? Students don’t want to listen to me talk about the syllabus and rules for 50 minutes anyway, and I’ve always hated spending my first minutes with them convincing them that my class will be a huge bore. My hope is that this plan teaches students what to expect in class, while at the same time introducing the routines and letting them get to know me right from the start.

The Journey Begins…Again

A brand new school year is just around the corner, and I am really excited to get started. At the same time, I really wish my summer were a few weeks longer. Who doesn’t, right?

I’m especially excited this year because I have completely revamped my course – I’ll be teaching my Heritage Spanish 1 class using the reading and writing workshop model. I’ve spent the last 6+ months learning as much as I can about it: poring over blogs, stalking ELA teachers on Twitter, reading some great books on the subject (check out anything by Penny Kittle; you won’t be disappointed), tagging along to English department meetings at my school, and even attending 3 days of PD with the entire English team.

I was able to try out a writing workshop unit in my classes last year, and it was amazing! My students wrote more and better than they ever had before. I realized that if they could improve so much in 5 weeks of workshop, then a whole year would lead to incredible growth.

I’m lucky to work with some wonderful English teachers who are always seeking to improve their practice, and who never hesitate to let me pop in to observe. Learning to teach a language arts class with no formal training in that area is work – but it’s work that I’m excited to do.

So I’ve been working a lot this summer, but when it’s work I want to do, and it’s done on my own time, it doesn’t feel so stressful. I’m still poring over blogs about writing workshop and stalking ELA teachers on Twitter. I’m also adding lots of books to my Amazon wish list (and, of course, buying some with my own money because I just can’t resist), buying a mountain of composition notebooks and colorful pens, and working on planning documents for the year ahead.

My teetering tower of 150 composition notebooks.

One big takeaway from all that I’ve read is that you can’t teach writing if you don’t write. Before the writing workshop unit I did last year, it had been a long time since I did any kind of writing. Writing beside my students, I wrote 6 personal narratives, and carried two of them through the editing process to a finished product. This summer, in preparation for the new year, I wrote a letter to my students, “10 Cosas que quiero que sepas acerca de esta clase.” And now, here I am starting a blog. Even if no one ever reads it, at least I am working on writing. That’s a start.

Teaching Heritage Spanish using reading and writing workshop