Tagged: reading lab

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #6

Staying positive and getting a grip: Rocky defeats the Russian

ms. spitz 4favicon We are four weeks in, and it would be a typical Marni move to paint a picture of sunshine, rainbows, and history puns. But I gotta tell you guys: It hasn’t been the smoothest of starts, by any means. Between a broken copy machine, a missing office manager, an assistant principal out on paternity leave, a broken grading system, and 45% new staff (including a new principal), the Universe was trying to be like the Russian in Rocky IV and make us prove ourselves.

On top of this, I’m having a really rough time winning over my ninth grade Reading Labbers this year. Some of these lovely kiddos are giving me major ‘tude. And I’m not talking your typical eye-rolling, silent-treatment teen ‘tude. Rather: the kind of ‘tude that makes you think not-so-nice-thoughts then feel really bad about thinking those not-so-nice thoughts.

But as someone who likes to see herself as a glass-half-full kind of gal, I tried my darnedest to look on the bright side and be a positive, encouraging teacher-leader in the building. I stayed upbeat and corny with my ‘tudetastic students. “Hi guys! So good to see you! Let’s take our books out and read! Yay!” But it was hard.

Teaching, especially these precious first weeks, is hard enough when everything is going smooth. You gotta be a tough cookie to not get bogged down by all the negative minutiae. But there I was, Week Two, not channeling my inner tough-cookie, and feeling eerily similar to the helplessness I felt my first year teaching.

I began to realize that I needed to shut this  journey to Negative Nancy town down. So, I began to give myself pep-talks in the second person:  “Cut it out Marn! You are in your ninth year teaching! You are Ms. Spitz, damn it! You make kids laugh, and learn, and love reading, and you include cheesy Justin Timberlake clip art on your handouts! You need to get a grip and remember what you do!”

I once read that it takes 10 compliments to make up for every one insult. Yikes. But I am Rocky! I can do this! Per the suggestion of my instructional coach, I began a tally of all the positive “wins” I witnessed throughout the day so that I would stop focusing on those insults, and begin galvanizing those compliments.

Here is a snapshot of a 1-10 ratio:

Negative point:  “Do we have to read, Ms. Spitz?  It’s so boring. I don’t want to read. It’s so boring.” A pause. “Seriously though: Do we have to?”

Plus Points:
+ In the hallway, a ninth grader going out of her way to tell me she was loving her book.

+ At lunch, a ninth grader who reported she “strongly disliked” reading being found reading her book at the cafeteria table. (Did I mention it was during lunch?)

One of my 11th graders reminding another student to “Please put your feet down! We are Scholars! Professional Posture!”

+ A former student asking me if I had a copy of Kaffir Boy because she loved reading it in my class freshman year and wants her younger brother to read it.

+ A current reading labber asking me everyday for the past week when she can get her Kindle because she keeps finishing books so fast.



+ A student who had been giving me ‘tude saying “Hi Ms. Spitz” at the door on her way into class, with a smile. (OK, maybe it was a half smile, but it still totally counts.)

Another student who had been giving me ‘tude asking if she could keep her volleyball bag in my room after school because she felt my room was “safe.”

+ A student telling me he had already finished his book. And when I said: “Really? I’m so proud of you!” he replied: “Well I’m almost done but I knew it’d make you happy.”

+ Our first monthly staff potluck of the year going off without a hitch and filled with so much laughter, and…there was an ample supply of watermelon-feta-mint salad. (I love watermelon-feta-mint salad.)

+ My former reading labbers returning to my classroom to check out books from my library because apparently, my library is “hella good.”

Rocky for the win!

Add to those 10 plus points a newly working copy machine, a vice principal returning, a functioning gradebook, and a resilient and dedicated staff — our cup runneth over!

And so I have returned to my unyielding belief in the power of optimism — especially now that I am making myself a watermelon-feta-mint salad for every ten tallies I get. favicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #5

The power of teaching The Bluest Eye

ms. spitz 4favicon There are many things one can call a teacher, but selfish usually doesn’t make the list. However, I have to admit: I have done something with my Reading Labbers for my own personal happiness, and the best/worst part is, I feel really good about it. Allow me to explain:

The time had arrived for me to choose a book that my Reading Lab would read together as a class. By my own admission, I tend to make a big deal out of things that are so not a big deal (like choosing what to eat for breakfast or which episode of Friends I’d like to watch again). Choosing a book to read for my Reading Lab readers seemed like the biggest deal ever. I found myself hyper-analyzing every book to make sure that this would be a positive experience for my students. After all, the whole point of the class was to bring joy into reading, and the last thing I wanted to do was bring another book into my students’ lives that felt boring, or hard, or painful. But when it came down to it, I really, really, really wanted us to read a book that would make them  feel empowered and proud of themselves and special. Finding a book that would be both joyful and empowering seemed really hard. (Like when I have to choose between Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Honey Nut Cheerios).

After months (seriously, months) of thinking about this selection, I finally opted for a book that I wasn’t confident would bring joy to the kiddos, but one that I knew for sure would bring joy to me. I chose The Bluest Eye because I love it so much, I think it such an important story and piece, and to be honest, I wanted to read it again. I felt good about my decision but I was really, really, really nervous about it. The book is banned in many states (most recently, Ohio, the very state where the book takes place), it talks about issues that are extremely painful and intense, and on top of this, it’s  a really hard book to read. It takes a special kind of reader to read Toni Morrison (the best kind, if you ask me). I am admittedly obsessed with her, but the woman is anything but “easy” in her writing. Would my kids get it? Would they like it? Or would this be just another book that went into the “I hate when I read books at school” box?  And if they didn’t like it, I anticipated that I would take it far more personally than I should have. I needed to be careful of that. Clearly, I had gone with only half of the criteria, leaving the first part (the one about bringing joy) all to myself.

The Bluest Eye

So there we were, Day One of reading Toni Morrison’s first book (and one of my favorite pieces of literature, ever, ever, ever) with a  group of ninth grade struggling readers. What was I thinking?

Even before starting the book with my students, I made sure to capitalize on the timeless teenage propensity to love things that aren’t allowed. So of course, we launched our experience by first reading about how The Bluest Eye is banned in several school districts around the country. This got them intrigued. Did you say, BANNED, Ms Spitz? Does this mean we are breaking the rules?!?!! I explained that while it wasn’t banned at our school, I was still pretty cool for letting them read it. 😉 I also decided to be up front about its difficulty, knowing this could potentially backfire. This made them feel proud. Did you say this book is on an 11th grade reading list, Ms. Spitz? But we’re only in 9th grade!  I figured intrigued and proud were two feelings I could run with. So after talking a bit about the history, a bit about Toni (and how much I idolized her),  on we went.

As we dived into the Prologue, I was surprised at how not nervous I was. Guided by my own selfishness, I loved reading the lyrical genius of Toni Morrison with my kids.

If you haven’t read The Bluest Eye, and haven’t listened to Toni read her own book, might I recommend that you do so immediately. Preferably, do this with a classroom of adorably earnest ninth graders.  Seriously, stop reading this blog and go do that now. 🙂

The whole process felt so natural that I almost forgot to worry whether or not my kids were liking the book or not. I was too wrapped up in my own cocoon of joy to even think about that. And then, somewhere between page 87 and 89,  I realized I wasn’t worrying about their joy because it was kind of just happening.

We were reading The Bluest Eye together and having the best time. Everyone seemed on board. We stopped every now and then, summarized what happened, shared some of our favorite quotes, talked about our opinions of the characters, and whoever I called on (even with no hand raised) seemed to be right with me. What was going on?

And then: We watched this clip with Toni on The Colbert Report:

Sure, 14-year-olds and Colbert might not be BFFs just yet, but seeing Toni in her element, talking about race and specifically about the very book we we reading made my students feel important, empowered and…full of joy. Ms Spitz look! Our book! We’re like…famous!

Once again hoping to feed my own selfishness, I held individual conferences about our reading, and here’s what they had to say. (I have intentionally excluded my reactions to these comments for fear that there are not enough exclamation marks to express my boundless joy.)

Elizabeth: I love Pecola because I feel I have a  human connection to her, and this book makes me want to read more Toni Morrison books.

Jimmy: I really like this book because it’s not like other books I’ve read because it’s not a fairy tale, it’s real life.

Maribel:  The writing is confusing, but when you think about it, you get to understand it better, and then it makes me feel  I can read more books that might seem confusing. There’s something about the author I like.  It’s hard to put into words.

Justin: The fact that it’s banned makes it interesting.  At first I didn’t think I was going to like it, but then it starts to tell you more about the characters and their pasts. I really like Claudia’s innocence.

Sergio: It has really descriptive writing, powerful wording, and lots of explanations of why things are happening. It’s cool: I’m really getting this. The author’s cool because I like how she explains stuff and how she likes her own books. I really like her confidence.

Rayanie: She (Toni)  makes you think a lot, and I like that.

Aryanna: I think its important  for us to read because as a teenager, your life gets more into racial issues and self-image and what others think about you. So it feels like issues in the book are happening today, and I can relate to it. Pecola makes me feel like I just want to care of her.

Khyree: I think it’s a good book because it talks about how people were treated for their color of their skin and not their heart. It just shows how being in poverty and skin color can really affect you, and it can hurt you.

There is so much that we could further dive into with these responses, but to hear my Reading Labbers, my ninth graders, my “struggling” readers speak like this, about The Bluest Eye, about Toni Morrison and about a book that I love, I mean — how beautiful is that!?!? Does it get any better?!?!

Had my selfishness created a magical reading experience? Note to self: Why yes, it most certainly did. favicon

Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. This is her fifth post for TEACHER VOICES. Donate to Marni’s classroom!

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #4

Rayonie, reading, and the 1999 Women’s World Cup victory

ms. spitz 4Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. This is her fourth post for TEACHER VOICES. Donate to Marni’s classroom!

favicon Scene 1: Tuesday, August 26, 8:47 am
ME: When you finish your book, you let me know with a huge grin on your face, because you’re so excited you have just read an amazing book, and I smile so big, and we all give you a round of applause and I take your picture to document this incredible moment.


* * *

Scene 2: Tuesday, September 2, 8:31 am
RAYONIE (whispered, monotone): Ms. Spitz, I finished my book.

ME (super loud excited whisper): What?!?!?! You did?!?! Already?!?!? That’s so awesome! Did you like it? How do you feel?!?! (Turns to class) Guys (loud excited non-whisper directed at rest of class), I have a huge announcement. Rayonie finished her book!!! Isn’t that awesome? Let’s all give her a huge round of applause!

READING LAB-ERS: (Silence. Complete, utter, teenage-angsty, SILENCE.)

ME: Guys. I said, Rayonie finished her book!!!! Let’s give her a huge round of applause!!

READING LAB-ERS: (Awkward clapping)

ME: Rayonie hon, come over here so I can get your picture with your book!

RAYONIE: Do I have to take a picture? I don’t want to.

ME: Yes!!! This is so exciting and your old teacher wants to remember this day! Please just smile that incredible smile with your book! I promise you’ll thank me later.

RAYONIE: (whispers) Fine.

Here is the picture of Rayonie on that first “celebration” of her finishing her book.

Rayonie 1

Here is the picture of the gymnast who’s “not impressed” face went viral.


* * *

Scene 3: Monday, November 17, 7:52 am (40 minutes before First Period)
RAYONIE (entering room 210 with biggest smile on her face): Ms. Spitz! Guess what?!?! I finished TWO BOOKS THIS WEEKEND!!!!


RAYONIE: I just stayed in my room this weekend and read.

ME: THAT’S IT! IT’S OFFICIAL!! YOU ARE INCREDIBLE! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!! LOOK AT YOU, YOU READER YOU!!! (I’d like to think I said something a little more articulate, but I think I was too excited to do that.)

RAYONIE: Should I take a picture with both of the books?

ME (trying to play it cool and not FREAK OUT that she just initiated the photo herself): Sure!!! That would be fantastic!!!

Here is Rayonie on the 10th book-completion celebration:

 rayonie after

ME:  “Guys, I have a huge announcement. Rayonie finished not one but two books this weekend!! Isn’t that awesome? Let’s all give her a huge round of applause!!

READING LAB-ERS: (Elated cheering, clapping, and Woo hoo-ing!) 

Here is a picture of the 1999 Women’s World Cup Soccer Team the moment they won the World Cup.

 womens world cup

Yeah. favicon

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TEACHER VOICES: Marni Spitz, #3

Numbers, Reading, the Jackson 5, and Awesomeness

ms. spitz 4Ed. note: Marni Spitz teaches U.S. History and Reading Lab at City Arts and Technology High School in San Francisco. This is her third post for TEACHER VOICES. Donate to Marni’s classroom!

favicon Numbers. I love numbers. They mean so much. They can mean good luck, dates of birthdays, years of anniversaries, and how many spoonfuls of sugar you need in order to make the best chocolate chip cookies ever. So to all those number-loving educators, I, a Humanities teacher, salute you!

Numbers come up a lot in my U.S. History and Reading Lab classes. They teach us so much! Question: When was the Declaration of Independence signed? Answer: 1776! (a number!) Question:  What resolved the debate over the representation of slaves in the House of Representatives? Answer: 3/5th Compromise (another number! a fraction at that!)

In Reading Lab, a new class we’re piloting with our ninth graders this year, numbers are coming up all the time. Some insight: I use numbers to track my students’ pages on their independent reading books each day. My students use numbers to find quotes for their metacognition journals. We use numbers to set goals for reading and to chunk our reading.

But perhaps the best number of all so far has been the number of books students are finishing. That’s right. My Reading Lab-ers are voraciously reading and FINISHING their books. It’s honestly incredible!


After FIVE days of class (five, another great number: high fives! Five Guys Burgers! Five Spice Girls!), THREE of my students had already finished their books! THREE out of FIFTEEN in ONE week! The next week, there were another THREE, and the following week, FOUR more! By week six, ELEVEN out of FIFTEEN (that’s 11/15 for all you fraction lovers!) had finished a book. Some students have even finished more than ONE book!

I know that you’re thinking: But we’re only in week SEVEN! And your students are in a reading intervention class! I thought they don’t even like reading! How the heck is this happening?!?  Well guys, I don’t have a scientific explanation just yet, but I have spent some time pondering this incredible phenomenon. Here’s what I’ve come up with as to why my Reading Lab-ers are finishing books with Usain Bolt speed:

(FYI, these are in no particular order as I am not here to make numbers feel above/below each other. Hahahahaha — get it? I crack myself up.)

1. Our kids have access to AWESOME BOOKS!!! SO SO SO MANY AWESOME BOOKS!

If I do say so myself, my classroom library is amazing! We’re talking Beyonce dance moves amazing. This has everything to do with the books on the shelves and very little to do with me (although I love to take credit). With the help of my literacy coach (I’m talking about you, Mark!), DonorsChoose.com, and our charter network’s commitment to books, my classroom library is rich in variety of genre and level. And…the books are so new and so so pretty! Sure, we know that in most instances, looks don’t matter, but whoever said not to judge a book by it’s cover hasn’t worked with a group of struggling teenage readers.

2. I KNOW my classroom library like Indiana Jones knows how to rock cargo.

My first year with a classroom library was wonderful, but I had never read most of the books in it, nor had I beared witness to the effects each book had on its readership. As my library continues to grow, the more familiar I am with the heavy hitters. (For example: Perfect Chemistry will win every time! The Bluford series is a gem for confidence-boosting! You liked Dope Sick? I think you’d love Tyrell!). My librarian skills have really picked up and I am developing a niche for being a book-student matchmaker. My Grandma would be so proud!

perfect chemistry

I also spent a lot of time reorganizing my library this summer so that I can navigate my shelves with the grace and stamina of Michael Jordan. Just call me #23. (There I go with the numbers again).  Something as simple as knowing where the books are has made the book-student matching process far more effective! I can quickly direct a student to the “Fight The Man!” bins on the left, the “Back in the Day” bins in the middle, and the “Ulysses” bins on the top shelf. (Okay fine, we’re not quite there yet, but we’ll get there!)

3. The students are reading their books in a lot of their classes. A LOT.

They’re reading in English. They’re reading in Advisory. They’re reading in Math. They’re reading in Biology. My reading Lab-ers are getting so much time to read their books at school, thanks to the incredible commitment of the ninth grade team!!  When asked about reading at home, most of my students said that no, they didn’t read at home and never really had. At this point in the school year, whether or not my kiddos are reading their books at home is still unclear, but what is clear is that structured and routinized reading is happening in multiple classes.

Having their independent book with them is as essential as their pens, binders, and enthusiasm. Words cannot express what a joy it is to walk in the hallways during my prep, eat my snack (that’s what preps are for right?), and peek into ninth grade classrooms and see them reading. You can just FEEL the pages turning!

4. Reading is part of ninth grade culture!

It’s alive! It’s alive! (And, unlike Frankenstein, it’s far from terrifying. In fact, it’s arguably the most beautiful thing ever.) It’s alive in the hallways (student book reviews!), in signs on teachers’ front doors (Ms. Y is currently reading…), in passing conversation (“Have you read A Child Called It yet?”), when work is done early (“Done with your quiz? Open up yo’ book!”), in a grade-wide competition (Which advisory can read the most books?), and of course, on the ‘ole faithful bulletin boards. Finishing books is a thing! It’s a real thing that lives and breathes alongside the ninth grade experience. INCREDIBLE!

dope sick

5. We spend time previewing the books!

Call me crazy (not maybe), but I love previews! They get me pumped! Similarly, this year we spent two full days surveying and previewing the books. I may or may not have done some pretty fantastic book pitches, and I made sure to play the “EVERYONE-who’s-ever-read-this book-has-LOVED-it” card to really hone in on that peer pressure. A gallery walk of the books gave our growing readers a chance to familiarize themselves with the steps and value of the selection process. Every student but one selected a book they liked on their first go around. How’s that for numbers?

6. We celebrate finishing a book like we just won tickets to a Prince concert!

Never underestimate the power of a round of applause accompanied by a photo. Just last week, a student finished a book, and the class’s applause was super weak. He demanded we do it again. Heck yeah, Sergio: Get yours!  Quantifying reading can be tricky, but I think that the number of finished books can provide some priceless insight on so many factors:

– Are students actually reading during SSR? (You bet!)
– Do you have enjoyable books in your library? (No doubt!)
– Are students reading outside of your class allotted SSR? (For real!)
– Do you need more copies of a certain book? (YES! ALWAYS!)
– Do student book requests work? (Why yes! They most certainly do!!)
– How are your students feeling about reading in general? (They get it. And if they don’t, they want to and are on their way.)

I guess what I’ve been trying to say in so many words  is that: Numbers are awesome. Finishing books is awesome. My Reading Lab-ers are awesome. Beyonce’s dance moves are awesome. Classroom libraries are awesome. When it comes to numbers and letters, the Jackson Five (there’s five again!) is awesome. They were really onto something when they sang: “A,B,C, easy as 1,2,3.”

See what I did there? favicon