In the Educator Spotlight today – 3th grade teacher Aliza Werner!
Please tell us about yourself!
My name is Aliza Werner (pronounced Aleeza) and I have been teaching since 2005. Currently, I teach third grade in Glendale, Wisconsin, in the district in which I grew up! I serve on the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Children’s Literature Committee and I write for the collaborative education blog Classroom Communities (classroomcommunities.com). I am a Curriculum Writer at Milwaukee Film and do year-round work on their Education and Children’s Film Screening Committees. My husband and I love to travel the world…Indonesia to Ireland, Peru to Portugal. We are dog parents to the world’s sassiest wheaten terrier, Liffey. I am a reader, photographer, baseball fan, Boston U. alum, and hot sauce connoisseur. I am passionate about building diverse classroom libraries that provide all children with windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, and I am a fierce advocate for choice, access, and time to read.
What are some of your favorite middle grade books or authors?
You should really sit down…this could take awhile! We are living in a golden age of children’s literature, which is getting more diverse and inclusive every day. My favorite middle grade authors write books that stay with me long after I’ve closed their covers: Katherine Applegate, Jason Reynolds, Kate DiCamillo, Dan Gemeinhart, Jacqueline Woodson, Nora Raleigh Baskin, Kwame Alexander, Laurel Snyder, Elana K. Arnold, Debbi Michiko Florence, Cynthia Lord, and Celia Perez. Some of my all time favorite middle grade books, including some very recent reads, are: The Honest Truth, The Wild Robot, Ghost (Track series), Because of Winn-Dixie, Tuck Everlasting, The One and Only Ivan, El Deafo, Brown Girl Dreaming, Three Pennies, and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to The World.
What was your favorite book as a child? Why did you love it so much?
The first book I ever loved was The Little Engine That Could. My parents claim I had it memorized by the time I was three. The repetition of lines, persistence of the characters to get over the mountain, and the “I think I can” mantra was engaging and inspiring to me. Everyone needs a steadfast friend like the Little Blue Engine, literally pulling for them. Most importantly, I heard this story over and over again sitting on the laps of my parents, who never told me I had to go choose another book.
How do you create a culture of reading in your classroom or school?
A culture of literacy starts with the lead learner…me. My students know from before day one, when they stop by at our late summer meet & greet, that “reading is what we do here”. As soon as my students enter my classroom, and see our library as the heart of it, they know that reading is more than a compartmentalized section of our academic day. As they explore the classroom library and find that their lives, cultures, and experiences are represented there, they become a part of our community of readers. Above all, I value each reader where he or she is on their literacy journey. Some are voracious bookworms and others just haven’t found the right book yet. Children often value what we praise. So if we saturate our days in positive and engaging literacy experiences, more often than not, they want to come along for the ride. I share my reading life by displaying my current book by my “What is Mrs. Werner Reading?” sign, post book covers on a hallway display to track my reading throughout the year, share my authentic reading experiences with my students, post book covers of all the books we’ve read together, share student recommendations via Flipgrid, display student-created books in our library, give student-led book talks, keep TBR lists, use audiobooks and digital reading. We communicate with authors via Twitter and “meet” them through Skype sessions. We hold an annual Read In. We read picture books every day and end our day with a chapter book read aloud. We go beyond the curriculum to participate in The Global Read Aloud, March Book Madness, World Read Aloud Day, Mock Caldecott, and Poem in Your Pocket Day. We live and breathe reading moments into everything we do.
How do you make sure that the books your students have access to reflect the diversity of our world?
My number one goal as I continually build my classroom library is to add positive and diverse representations of my students and humankind beyond our classroom walls. It is vital that educators consider that diversity goes beyond race and ethnicity. Diversity includes religion, ability/disability, family structures, gender and sexual identity, culture, and more. I am inspired by the young people in front of me every day, and I reflect on this question: Do I have books in my classroom that are mirrors for every child? My Jewish and Muslim kids? The child whose parents are divorcing? The child with two moms? The child who immigrated? The child who has autism? The child who smashes gender norms? The child in foster care? My students’ lives and experiences motivate the new purchases I make for our library. Through my work on the state reading committee, social media, literary organizations and websites, and educator and author friends in my network, I learn about up and coming books, along with treasured titles. It is absolutely vital that the books we share and celebrate include #OwnVoices authors and represent more than a single story whenever possible.
Take a picture of something in your classroom and tell us the story behind it.
This photo represents everything I love about my new morning routine this year. We call it “Spark & Shine!” After years of struggling with what to do for morning work, I heard about the concept of soft starts. This allows students the chance to start their day the way they want, collaboratively or individually. As adults, we start our day by grabbing coffee, chatting with colleagues, listening to music. Most of us don’t dive into work immediately, especially not with a packet of pre-assigned, undifferentiated work. If I need this daily warm up and wake up, wouldn’t the kids need it, too? Each day my students decide on a choice with the guidelines that they must “Read, Build, Create, Make, Design, Solve, or Explore”. Ever since starting Spark & Shine, my students are excited to arrive at school. They race into the room knowing they can build and create or have a quiet moment to themselves. Some things they have done this year: made slime, built a two-story cardboard castle, stop motion movies, made bath fizzies, origami, Tinkertoys, Legos, IO Blocks, dominoes track designs, cup stacking, making graphic novels, puzzles, spin art, and researching/observing animal bones found outside to identify an animal (as seen in the photo). This way of starting the day also gives me a chance to play and spend time with my kids, starting our day in a fun and positive way.
How do you encourage less-than-enthusiastic readers?
Encouraging our readers is all about patience, connection, and scaffolding. Often our students who view reading as a chore haven’t found a book yet in their reading
experience that grabs their heart, mind, and soul. It takes building a relationship with that student to research why they are resistant to reading. Is it because they need to hone their book selecting skills or reading habits? Are they yearning for a mirror book, but not finding it? Are life challenges causing them to neglect reading? Once I discover the root of the roadblock, it is much easier to seek out solutions. At any chance I get, I build up these students’ positive experiences around reading. I’ll buy a certain book I hope will hook them and select them as the first reader. Connecting a student to an author can often motivate them. Entice them with a shared reading to start a book, or a first chapter read aloud. Audiobooks and graphic novels are excellent ways to hook readers and bridge them to a world of reading.
What advice would you give new teachers?
I will never forget my first year of teaching. I remember the nerve-wracking interview process, getting the call that the job was mine, setting up my 7th grade classroom, and then thinking…wait, how do I do this?! How do I actually teach? When I look back on my first year, it was filled with countless mistakes, endless hours of prep and grading, and self doubt. But we all have to start somewhere, and teaching is an art and science that takes years to master, though we never do entirely. My advice to brand new teachers:
- Focus on relationships with your students first. With every single child. Academics second. It makes all the difference to invest in those bonds.
- Accept and embrace that you are always learning in this profession.
- Find your passion within the profession so you can do heartwork, not have-to-work.
- Read. Read. Read. And then read some more. And write.
- Self care, above all. Leave the grading at school. Don’t check your email before bed. Do things that make you happy and healthy. Go travel and have life experiences that fill you up. You’ll be a better teacher for it.
Want more inspiration? Check out the other #MGEducators interviews and guests posts!