Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Making a Difference through Book-of-the-Month

Mrs. Phillips reads the
book-of-the-month to the faculty.
When people ask about why Chets Creek is what it is, I know that it is our school culture and results that they are asking about.  Building culture was by intentional  design from the very first vision of the school.  It was the starting point for everything that followed and is partially responsible for the incredible results we have gotten over the years.  Part of that culture building included the design for professional development.  Over the years professional development has taken many different forms.  Some designs have endured over time and continue to bring us together for collegial work.  Those are the ones I am highlighting through this series of blogs about professional development that makes a difference.

Teachers follow along as Principal Phillips
reads the book-of-the-month.
Book-of-the-Month -  The idea for Book-of-the-Month was to choose one children's book every month that could be shared with the faculty who would then share it with the students in their classrooms so that the entire school had a common text for discourse.  This sets the Principal up as the instructional leader for the school.  The Principal introduced the book to the faculty (and nobody can read a children's book better than Susan Phillips!) and then each teacher introduced it to her children.  This practice of introducing monthly books has been continuous through the past fifteen years at Chets Creek,  although it has taken many different forms.

Working in small groups
In the beginning, I think the principal chose books just because they were good books for children, and she was somehow drawn to each of them on a personal level. She chose the very first books to "motivate, encourage and inspire."  They were culture building books. Eventually part of the Principal's presentation each month was a "point paper" that included why she selected the book and ideas for how the book could be used.  Some years the books-of-the-month emphasized vocabulary strategies, writing and reading strategies.  These presentations of strategy work always included an activity to first demonstrate and then practice the strategy so that we felt like the students in the Principal's class.   Even in years when the emphasis has had more of a language arts slant, the Principal has tried to demonstrate principles that could be used across disciplines and across grade levels with the goal of engaging all teachers in the conversation.

Teachers working with book-of-the-month with Principal Phillips.
In the first years, the books were given to the teacher and they belonged to her but it didn't take many years for us to realize that as those books left the building with teachers that left, that we probably weren't being the best steward of our very limited resources.  Now the books go to each classroom and they remain in that classroom, which has helped to build a strong library in each room of good books that can be used as touchstone text. You can imagine how the libraries have built up over time with six to nine quality books added each year for 15 years!  These are books that the teacher knows well because she has studied them as books-of-the-month and that students know because they hear them and see them through the years.  It's easy for a teacher to pick up a BOM to make a point without having to read the entire book because the students are familiar with it.

It has not always been easy for the school to afford to buy books-of-the-month.  The fact that there have always been books each year, even though funds have been so limited, is a testament to the tenacity and creativity of Chets Creek Principals!  In fact, in years where there wasn't a book every month, it is most often due to cost.

Not only have the books been the linchpin for teaching many different strategies and ideas over the years, they have provided us with common ideas that have led to conversation across grade levels and across disciplines that strengthen our relationships which effects our results. It's all woven together.

I could talk about so many of the books that have made a deep and lasting impression on me but I will stick to just three examples so you can see the impact, at least  through my eyes.  I am sure, if asked, each teacher would have her own stories of favorite BOMs and books that have made a difference in her life and in her classroom.

One of our earliest Books-of-the-Month was  Knots on a Counting Rope by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archembault.  This was not a book that was entirely new to me but not one that I had studied with much depth either. However, it was to become a book that would change many of my assumptions about studying books together with my peers.  Before presenting this book to the faculty, Dr. Stahlman asked the Leadership Team to read the book with the idea that we would discuss it at our following meeting,  (sort of a preview to the faculty presentation) so... I read this picture book about a small Native American boy and his grandfather.  I do not remember the specifics of our book talk at that next meeting but I will never forget the electricity in the room as we discussed what we had read and our interpretations.  I realized that I had missed much of the story including that one of the main characters was blind- which is a major point to understanding the text.  It was the first time that I really truly understood the power of a book talk and how conversations with my peers could change and deepen the way that I interpreted text.  That book talk changed the way that I taught and what I did with book talks in my classroom from that day on.

Several years later, Knots on a Counting Rope was integrated into the kindergarten homework during the month of November when kindergartners celebrate Pow Wow.  The young Native American boy was an Iroquois, one of the tribes that we study.  Teachers read the story aloud several times during the month (now that everyone had the book because it had been a Book-of-the-Month!) and explained to the children that the grandfather in the story had a rope and that he tired a knot in the rope each time he told the young boy a story. The rope represented time. Kinder teachers then sent home a length of rope with each child with information for the parents of how to find a reading of the book on-line. They asked the parents to tie a knot in their child's rope each time they told their own child a story about their family.  The children returned the lengths of rope at the end of the week and shared some of their family stories with each other and with the class. The fact that the work that was born out of this book has endured for 16 years is a testament to its original power as a book-of-the-month!

America's White Table by Margot Theis Raven is another book that made a lasting impression, not just on me but on an entire faculty and an entire school of children.  "America’s White Table is the story of a little known tradition outside the military of setting a remembrance table to honor the brave men and women who have served in our nation’s armed forces.  The white table has served as a solitary and solemn reminder of the sacrifices made to ensure our freedoms.  On Veteran’s Day Katie and her sisters are asked to set this special white table in honor of her uncle who served in the Vietnam War.  As the girls set the table their Mama explains the significance of each of the items and shares the story of their uncle’s captivity and escape."

As we walked into the presentation for America's White Table on Veteran's Day, the Media Center was completely dark except for a single spotlight in the ceiling that shone down on a small table with a white table cloth.  The ambiance completely quieted the teachers as they took seats in this theatre in the round.  As Principal Susan Phillips began to read this solemn story,  Media Specialist KK Cherney, dressed in black, began to add the symbols to the table.  As Susan closed the story and a bugle began to play Taps, I don't think there was a dry eye in the room. We are a school with many military families with many moms and dads and husbands deployed at any given time, but more than that we are patriots who understand sacrifice.  The faculty was so moved by this book that they asked Mrs. Phillips to present it to every grade level... and she did - to all 1300 students! In the years since that first reading in the week leading up to Veteran's Day the table is set in our lobby and on Veteran's Day Mrs. Phillips repeats the reading of this patriotic BOM for new teachers or anyone that would like to attend. As many times as I have heard this book and seen this powerful demonstration, it still brings tears to my eyes. What are we teaching?  We are teaching patriotism but we are also teaching the power of words to create emotion.

The final book is one of our newest books this year, Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis that goes with our circus theme.  While I cannot know if it will have the staying power that other favorites have had, it made an explosive impact immediately on our work. With this book came the new strategy of sketch noting.  Sketch noting is an individualized visual technique for taking notes that brings a new meaning to "stop and jot" or "stop and sketch" or just general note taking and writing about reading. It requires you to synthesize so that you can represent an idea. We probably all do it when we take notes ourselves with arrows and asterisks and boxes around important information, but sketch noting encourages those types of organizational sketches and more that brings meaning to text and to our notes.  Many of the reading teachers were first introduced to sketch noting through Reading Council with a demonstration by Reading Coach Melanie Holtsman.  Their reaction was, "Why can't we teach content teachers to do this too. so we are all working together on this idea together?"  Thus was born a strategy that crossed grade levels and content areas and was the perfect BOM strategy.

Karen Meissner's first grade bulletin board featuring sketch noting to a readaloud.
As teachers bought into the idea of how sketch noting could help students organize and remember information, we saw blogs, and standard-based bulletin boards (like the kindergarten board above) and examples of student work shared all over the building such as the second grade examples below.

Second grade examples of sketch noting

This is the impact that so many strategies that have been demonstrated with books-of-the month have had on our work.

Sometimes the books-of-the-month make us feel - laugh or cry.  Sometimes the books help us understand a new concept or strategy through demonstration and practice, but always they give us a common vocabulary and text to discuss our thoughts and reflections.  Books-of-the-month as professional development lifts the level of our work and brings us together. How fortunate I have been to spend the last couple of decades learning with children's literature as the focus!

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