Happily Ever After

‘Twas three weeks before Christmas

and all through the classes

not many were reading

I wanted to shout, “Get off of your…!”

But I knew that wasn’t the answer. Cursing, yelling, bullying… not the tools of my trade. Although at that time of year, well, the patience and grace of a teacher before the winter break is a saintly and holy thing indeed.

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So I decided to try a short-term project. I knew I wanted to do a unit on traditional literature sometime this year. In the past, that unit had started with a tidy little chart I made about the various types and definitions of traditional literature. Then we read lots of stories, talked about them, and sometimes I put up large lists of the types of stories and had students put the stories they read into the “proper” category, along with reasons why they fit in that category. To be fair, this was a decent assignment that met the former standards for California – students had to be able to identify the type of story they were reading.

But CCSS does not require the low level skill of lableling. It asks for comparisons and analysis. And I knew there could be more to this unit. Fresh still from NCTE- the word AUTHENTIC was still echoing– no, really clanging around incessantly, in my head, and I wanted to make this unit feel real and meaningful. I also wanted to avoid being the reading police for the next few weeks, and I wanted engagement to increase.

So I went in on a Sunday and unloaded all of my traditional lit books out of storage. I plopped them onto the desks. And the next morning, I began by telling them I had all of these books that most people call traditional literature, but I needed help organizing them into manageable groups of books. They had some ideas – they had done some work in this genre before– and they agreed to try. I asked them to put post-its in the stories with notes about what they were thinking, to share with the other group of fourth graders who would also be helping with this project. They read and wrote back and forth to each other for a few days. I asked them if they had noticed any patterns, if we could start coming up with names for the types of stories we were reading. I purposely did not impose my “official” terms onto their noticings. I let it go where they took it. I figured at some point in the future I could say something like, “By the way, some people call these types of stories…”

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This was fun for most of the first week, but I knew we had to take it up a notch. What that would look like was not clear to me. I asked them to help. I shared with them that I was intrigued with this idea I had read about on some teacher blogs about projects where kids were doing their own Newberry awards. I asked them if that could work for us. Immediately they jumped in. There was lots of energy. One of my guiding principles this year has been one I heard from Kathy Collins this fall: “Go where the kids’ energy goes- follow it.”

We decided to call our awards the TL Awards. We would create the categories together, nominate stories for those categories, vote, tally, and hold an awards ceremony on the last day before break. They were excited, but in a way that was different. Now maybe that is just because I was looking for it, with my newfound “authentic project creator” swagger. I was pretty proud of myself. But really, they were 100% engaged. I did very little cajoling. I was really just managing, and observing, and having interesting conversations.

I asked everyone to nominate at least three books/characters, and I asked for one page of writing about one story they read each week. I pulled small groups based on what I noticed people were trying but not quite doing, and I coached kids for fluency work. The rest of our reading work (chapter books and info books) was independent. I let them pick partners for this part of the work. This work took up both readers and writers workshop time for the remainder of those three weeks. We still did a little notebooking, but just a little. I decided to sit back and watch.

Here is what I saw:

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Children who I had worried about all year started reading and writing like crazy. Students who barely talked about reading were engaged in real conversations. Stamina was off the charts. Because the books included Tall Tales, fairy tales, myths, anthologies from many different cultures, and many other types of stories, there was something for everyone. Because I allowed them to whisper-read the stories together with their partner, they helped each other through the rough spots. The only thing I required was for the nomination form to be checked by two other students. I wanted them to apply the skills we had learned in writers workshop, and I didn’t want to put stuff up on the wall that was not representative of our better work. And I knew they wouldn’t be able to read each others’ writing if I didn’t force legibility, basic grammar, and word wall spelling.

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The last week of the project found us mostly reading the nomination wall (it took up an entire wall of cabinets) and the stories that people had nominated, but we had not yet read. We did some work around writing about reading, and broadened it to drawing about reading- opening up our minds to different ways to respond to what what we were reading. Stamina increased again. I had plenty of quiet time to meet with students who needed extra time with me.

Then we had another meeting to determine our next steps. I helped them backwards plan from where we wanted to be on Friday to where we were that day. We made a list of next steps. The kids who wanted to be MCs audtioned for each other. The “winners” were obvious to them and surprising to me. In fact, the boy who was clearly suited for the work is usually quiet and shy and rarely speaks. This was a hidden talent of his. His mother came up to me during the ceremony with tears in her eyes and said she was so glad he had a chance to shine, and how he struggled to be himself in school. She thanked me for the chance I had given him. It wasn’t me! But I smiled and said thank you anyway.

A small group of students stepped up to compile a list of titles and characters from the nomination wall. I gave them a quick lesson on Excel and they used our five classroom computers to create the ballot. Then we printed the ballots, voted, and another group of students asked to tally them. They gave me the results and I put them in the envelopes.

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Awards day found us with both of my classes stuffed into my classroom, snacks were served, parents were invited in, and we began. I let them run with it. They had a blast. As each winner was announced, they high-fived each other, and they cheered as if it were real, as if they had won something, as if it really mattered. Well, it did – they did– yes!

At the end of the awards announcement, a few students had volunteered to read some of the winning stories (or excerpts from them) aloud to us if there was time. Thankfully there was. It was magical. Happily ever after magic.

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And I heard them exclaim

as they went on their way

that didn’t feel like work,

it felt much more like play!

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