In the Educator Spotlight today – 5th grade teacher Kristen Picone!
Please tell us about yourself!
My favorite job is being a mom to a kind, compassionate, baseball-loving, almost-9 year old. My second favorite job is being a 5th grade ELA/SS teacher, however, I don’t really see teaching as my job, it is my passion. It’s the only career I ever wanted and stemmed
from my six-year old love of, and desire to give, Spelling tests (which I have never given as a teacher!). When not watching Little League or NY Yankee games, I can usually be found reading a book (I am a proud member of #BookJourney), planning lessons around books, buying books, at the library checking out books, on Voxer and Twitter talking about books/teaching, or attending a bookish event, like #nErDCampNJ, #nErDCampNNE, or the Brooklyn Book Festival. My love of literacy is what led me to become friends with two very special people, JoEllen McCarthy and Ali McDermott, with whom I have the honor of co-organizing #nErDCampLI. Our 4th Annual nErDCampLI will be held on November 3rd 2018! I hope to see lots of nerdy friends there! You can find me on Twitter @Kpteach5 and @KPStars5 and information about #nErDCampLI is on our website: http://nerdcampli.weebly.com/ .
Thank you for all the amazing authors/illustrators that support #nErDCampLI !
What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?
This second question is basically impossible for me to answer. My kids ask me this same thing at the start of each school year and I tell them that there is no possible way for me to narrow down my favorites. High up on my list is One for the Murphys, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt because it is one of the few books that has made me cry each of the four times I have read it. Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, is a book I recently read that I KNOW will be one of my read alouds next year (I read different books every year). Lifeboat 12 (September 4th), Susan Hood’s debut MG novel (in verse), is not only an incredible mixture of fact and fiction, but the back matter is just as intriguing as the story itself. The Train of Lost Things, by Ammi-Joan Paquette, is a recent read that had me reaching for the kleenex multiple times. Lauren Magaziner’s books always make me laugh-out-loud, and Wizardmatch, her most recent book, is not only hysterically funny, but also a timely and necessary read. Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed, is our current class read aloud. This is a book that stayed with me for weeks after I finished reading it and prompted me to do more research into indentured servitude around the world. One of my very favorite MG voices is Cilla, from Cilla Lee-Jenkins: Future Author Extraordinaire and This Book is a Classic, by Susan Tan. My very favorite graphic novel is Brave, by Svetlana Chmakova. Two Truths and Lie: It’s Alive!, by Ammi-Joan Paquette and Laurie Ann Thompson is genius and a wonderful tool for teaching kids about credible sources and fact-checking. I love the family structures represented in Two Naomis, by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, and The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher, by Dana Alison Levy. And who doesn’t adore the Rip and Red series from Phil Bildner and anything that Alan Gratz, Kwame Alexander, or Jason Reynolds writes is sure to at the top of my “current faves” list. For #heartprint books, I adore any of Barbara O’Connor’s, Elly Swartz’s, Nanci Turner Steveson’s, or Kat Yeh’s beautiful MG books. Some books that I believe more people should be reading are The Meaning of Maggie, by Megan Jean Sovern, The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky, by Holly Schindler, The Way Home Looks Now, by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, Paper Things, by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, and The All Four Star series, by Tara Dairman. I could, and want to, go on and on…but I will stop now!
Tell us about your classroom library! How do you get books?
Aside from my son, my book collection is my pride and joy! I mentioned to my students the other day that maybe we should do some book counting in June as we do our end of the year book re-organization and some jaws dropped on the floor. Most of the books in my classroom, I have purchased myself. I am passionate about creating an inclusive classroom library, reflecting the diversity of our world. I want books that help students push past stereotypes and bias, books that build empathy and provide global awareness. In order to do this, I feel like I need the books at my fingertips, which is why I choose to spend my own money on books. My classroom library is always a work in progress, but it contains picture books and MG novels, fiction and nonfiction, in every format. There is something for every reader. My library has actually outgrown my (very) small classroom, so if anyone out there knows an interior designer who wants to come help reorganize, I am all for it!
What does your literacy instruction look like?
Although I change my chapter book read alouds every year, my first picture book read aloud is always Wings, by Christopher Myers. That book and the resulting conversations set the tone for the entire year. The first few weeks of school are not spent on curriculum, but rather on creating a classroom community. We engage in explicit lessons on courage, respect, trust, and tone, based on inspiration from Patrick Allen’s book, Conferring: The Keystone of Reader’s Workshop. At the heart of the literacy instruction in my classroom are picture books! I am a firm believer that picture books should be used in classrooms at every grade level. Aside from committing to #ClassroomBookADay, almost all of my Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop mini-lessons are done with picture books. Many of my Social Studies lessons also begin, or are followed up with, a related picture book. Picture books are accessible to all students. They provide the visual support that many students need and that most students love. They provide complex ideas in smaller packages. They can be used to promote SEL and social justice.
While I have always collected picture books, my practice of reading books was enhanced tremendously after reading Reading Picture Books With Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking. In this book, Megan Dowd Lambert describes the Whole Book Approach. As soon as I began following this approach, I noticed more conversation, more risk-taking, and deeper thinking, particularly when thinking about the images within the books. My students also learn and practice the BHH Framework and Notice and Note strategies (Thank you Kylene Beers and Bob Probst) using shared texts (usually picture books), before they apply these strategies to their own CHOICE novels or picture books. Through think alouds, conversations and using Signposts, we learn to read like writers and write like readers, with audience and purpose in mind.
My favorite unit of the year is the #MockCaldecott unit, where students analyze and evaluate illustrations before choosing a class winner. We also do the Battle of the Picture Books, a bracket-style tournament of Fiction vs. Nonfiction picture books. If kids read nothing else all year (of course they do!), in these two units alone, they are each reading more than forty-two, high-quality, picture books. I am very intentional with the books I choose for lessons and read alouds. As JoEllen McCarthy always says, books are our co-teachers! That statement couldn’t be more true in my classroom!
Picture books that were part of our #MockCaldecott unit this year!
How has your philosophy changed since you first became a teacher?
I began teaching in my own classroom in 2001. I remember very clearly that my resume had a quote from William Butler Yeats: Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. I truly believed that and wanted my classroom to reflect that overarching principle. Looking back, I don’t even recognize the teacher I was back then. I taught reading out of a Basal. I used workbooks and worksheets regularly. I gave reading tests, vocabulary tests, math tests, social studies tests, science tests…see the pattern?! I am sure there were projects thrown in there somewhere, probably book reports, and definitely reading logs. Pail filling. I did what other teachers around me were doing and followed along with the materials given to me by my district. I can honestly say that my education classes in college, including my Masters degree classes, did nothing to prepare me for actually teaching my own classroom. A year later, I started in a different school district, at a different grade level. I am pretty sure it was much of the same. Fast forward a few years and I found myself teaching reading strategies out of a test prep workbook. It was at that time that I knew something had to change. I have always collected picture books, but they were sitting dusty on shelves. Instead of reading the books, kids copied notes off the overhead projector, we all read the same book and answered comprehension question after comprehension question, they did homework nightly in every subject, and they had quizzes and tests every few weeks. More pail filling. I thought that’s what school was supposed to be. But I certainly wasn’t lighting any fires and my own was close to becoming extinguished. If it hadn’t been for a conference where Dr. Tony Sinanis, who was a principal on Long Island at the time, introduced me to Twitter, I may not have stayed in this career. Becoming a connected educator changed everything. I always remained steadfast in what I wanted my classroom look and sound like, but I was simply doing school. Once I connected with educators that had similar philosophies and took charge of my professional learning, my own fire was rekindled and school became about the kids again. There are no workbooks or worksheets, homework is reading and exploring personal passions, projects have replaced most tests, and students have choice and voice in their learning. Fires are being sparked each day and learning is the joyful experience it should be.
If you could go back in time to your first year teaching and give yourself advice, what would you say?
If I could go back and give myself advice (or give advice to new teachers), I would say, Stay true to what you know is right for kids, no matter what others around you are doing. Ask yourself: Would you want to be a student in your own classroom? Be kind to yourself, we all have days where we feel ineffective. Reflect and grow. Seek out learning opportunities. Challenge yourself. Embrace discomfort. Push boundaries. Take charge of your own professional development. Surround yourself with people who support you, but also push your thinking. Never stop learning and listening with an open mind. The kids are your guide. You teach standards, but your curriculum is the children. The kids will teach you more than you will ever be able to teach them.
I am so thankful for my PLN and to the friends I have met through Twitter (educators and authors). I am a better teacher and better human being because of all of you! **And as an aside, I would also like to send my sincerest apologies to the students I taught in those first few years. I often received compliments and thank yous from parents, so I assumed I was doing a good job. I think they could tell I cared deeply for their children, but I wish I could go back and give them the learning opportunities being created in my classroom today.
Twitter friends, turned real life friends, have made me better in every way. Thank you Paula Bourque, Michele Knott, Lesley Burnap, Jason Lewis, Cara Newman, Lorie Barber, Erin Varley, Susan Sullivan, Michelle Simpson, Niki Barnes, Jess Lifshitz, and so many others not pictured.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Time…to do all the important work I want to do each year. Time…to read all the books aloud that I want to read. Time…to try all of the wonderful new ideas I learn from my passionate PLN. Time…to know everything I need to know about each and every one of my students. Time…to share with them everything I wish they knew about me. Time…to introduce my students, via Skype, to all of the incredible authors I now feel lucky enough to call friends. Time…to read every piece of writing the kids write in their Writer’s Notebook. Time…there is never enough time.
One other challenge for me is balance. As I said earlier, teaching is my passion. For me, teaching is a 24 hour/day job. It’s not something I can just “leave at school”, as people often like to suggest. I am constantly thinking about my students, thinking about new lessons and experiences I want them to have, and hoping that I am doing enough to inspire curiosity and wonder, develop strong reading and writing identities and habits, and help them to realize that their voice matters in this world. So many people like to believe that we teachers work from 9:00 – 3:00, 180 days per year. Most of us know that couldn’t be further from the truth. And while the hours I spend working outside of the actual contractual work day are sometimes challenging, and not everyone in my family completely understands, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Come summer, I will give myself a week or two “off”, but even during those weeks I will be reading picture books, MG, or YA novels. After that, I will dive into my next professional read, while I sit at the beach or the pool. I will start to think about the new group of students I will have the opportunity to meet. I will wonder about who they are and who they will become on our ten month journey together. By the time September comes, I will be refreshed, renewed, and ready to start anew.
This job is a privilege and, no matter how short on time I always am or how unbalanced my life may feel sometimes, I am fortunate to spend my days doing what I love! Who wouldn’t want to be spend their days with kids in a room full of books?!?!
Thank you so much for the #MGBookVillage for giving me this opportunity! We are better together and I am thankful for all that you do for students and teachers!
You can connect with Kristen on Twitter at @Kpteach5
Want more inspiration? Check out the other #MGEducators interviews and guests posts!