Sister Classroom Winter Break Readathon

Hello, everyone! Welcome to winter break! That lovely time between the days when your students are hyped up on peppermint-laced sugar (though some prefer sugar-laced peppermint) and dancing around awaiting their vacation and the days when your students are hyped up on the promises of snow days and bemoan the fact that they are no longer on vacation.

In other words, welcome to #bookaday and the Sister Classroom Winter Break Readathon.

Many of you are probably familiar with Donalyn Miller’s #bookaday challenge. It is a challenge for teachers, librarians, students — really anyone who wants to — to read an average of one book per day over the two large breaks in the school year: winter break and summer break. More details can be found here.

Many of you are also probably familiar with the #throwdown challenges that we have run with our classrooms and with teachers and librarians over the summer. These have been fairly successful for promoting reading, but there has always been something nagging at both of us: the goal isn’t reading. The goal is to read more than someone else. Reading is a necessary element of this, but it’s not the goal. Like running is absolutely crucial in a soccer match, but it’s not the goal. We want to have more of a fun run type of event. A charity 5k, if you will. Everyone can go at their own pace, there are no losers, and everyone comes out ahead. And if we “raise enough money” (or read enough books), then we will have even more to celebrate.

So, this winter break, we are running a Readathon with our students. Our goal? Read. The mark we set for ourselves is 438 books: 3 books per person. We think we can hit 500, but we also wanted the goal to be student-centered. 3 books per person (which is also 1 book every 6 days over the 18 days we are running this challenge) was a lot more meaningful than 3.42 books per person.

As with all our challenges, there are some rules to keep some structure:

  • All books count, with the exception of picture books (though we encourage you to read those anyway!)

Okay, so it’s really more the one rule.

We pitched the idea to our students this week. Some of them thought the goal was crazy. Others were really excited. Both of our classrooms had decimated bookshelves by the end of the day, and we had lines at the Classroom Organizer check-out computer longer than we knew what to do with. Many students were glad to have a goal set for them. They knew they would read some over break, but didn’t know what would be a good number. They’re happy to have a goal to reach: “at least 3 books.” If we reach our goal as a group, we will have some sort of celebration when we return from break. But this wasn’t mentioned too much, as we really want the reading to be its own reward.

Will this be successful? Who knows. As with most everything we do, we know the theory is solid. There are bits of research here and there to support us. But until we try it, we don’t know how it will go. So we’re trying it. And we’ll see how it goes.

Even though Brian wrote the title of this post, he’s wondering if it’s redundant to put “sister classroom” in it. He’s going to keep it in there anyway (as is evident by the fact that it’s in there).

#throwdown 2012-2013

Brian’s Note: this is a Brian post. Prepare for it to get somewhat off-topic. Or at least be full of on-topic rambling.

If you’ve been following Jillian and I over the past year or so, you’ll know that we love a little bit of competition. We both feed off of it, and it engages most of our students as well. We’re all about keeping it friendly, and celebrating the results we’re all able to achieve through this extra motivation to lay a smack-down on someone from that state across Lake Michigan that sometimes refers to itself as looking like a mitten.

One of the most successful things we’ve done as Sister Classrooms has been our #throwdown competitions. They have been explained in varying detail here, here, and here. Basically, our students (or in the case of this summer, teachers and librarians) challenge each other to read more books per person than the other class over the course of a month.

Because we really can’t leave well enough alone, we had to up the ante a little this year. Well, actually, there is no ante (though fudge and cheese curds have exchanged hands). But we knew this had to be more than a one-time thing. This could really go all year. So we counted. October. November. December. January. February. March. April. May. 8 full months in the school year (we did the counting on September 26th, so that month was out). We each teach 4 classes: two 7th grade and two 8th grade. What if we matched up one class at a time throughout the year? Each class would get to participate twice, and they could then encourage their other classmates when it was their turn.

So yeah, that’s what we’re doing. In October, I am putting my 7A class up against a class of Mrs. Heise’s 7th graders. We’re using Google Docs (or Drive or whatever it’s called today) to keep track, which makes it fun for the students to see the up-to-the-second results.

The guidelines, if you’re curious:

ALL READING COUNTS. But some books do take more effort. So:

  • graphic novels count as 1/4
  • novels-in-verse count as 1/2
  • chapter books and above count as 1 book each
  • any book over 500 pages counts as 1.5

Oh, and Mrs. Heise, this is for you:

Happy #throwdown, everybody!

#WONDERschools Blog Tour

The wonderful publicists at Random House Children’s Books were inspired by all of the talk of teachers using Wonder by R.J. Palacio in the classroom, and created the #WONDERschools Blog Tour running October 1-9, with a very special post on October 10th on R.J. Palacio’s own website in celebration of Auggie’s birthday and also to honor “Unity Day” as part of Bullying Prevention Month.

So what are we, as a Sister Classroom, doing? Well, since both Mr. Wyzlic and Mrs. Heise’s classes will be sharing Wonder as a read aloud this year, we knew we wanted to do something to connect these two classrooms of students to share in the experience of this book beyond the walls of their own classrooms.

The first thing we’ll be doing is launching our Sister Classroom wiki and having our students share their ideas about what they’re reading out there. We will use Wonder as a launching point for the wiki.

The second thing we’ll be doing is moving beyond our thoughts about the book and into what we can do to make things better. Thus, we’ll be having students create some kind of #choosekind public service announcements to share around their school and online.

We hope you’ll join in the #WONDERschools movement and use Wonder in your classrooms, too. We’re looking forward to the blog tour so we can see many more ways that teachers are sharing #thewonderofwonder with students this year!

The Sister Classroom Project

How It All Began

How did this whole crazy Sister Classroom Project start anyway? Well, it all started with a tweet, as I’m sure many of the best ideas do; this particular one came from Brian Wyzlic…
[Brian’s note: when I sent this tweet, Jillian didn’t know it, but I was strongly hoping she would respond. I didn’t know much about her yet, but I could tell that we gelled very well, and I thought it would be awesome if she’d be on board with it. But I couldn’t just ask her to be my sister classroom. That’s like asking someone to go to the Glarsinary with you. I mean, what’s a Glarsinary? You have to ask lots of people if they want to create a Glarsinary, and then hope the right person responds. Mission: accomplished.]

[Jillian’s note: Now, I was already twitter “friends” with Brian, and I knew he taught middle school in Michigan, but I had no idea how our relationship would grow into “siblings” from my simple response to him.]

The first tweet was followed up with this:


[Brian’s note again: Jillian was the only one to respond. It was fate. Or just. . .that we’re the only ones this crazy!]

[Jillian’s further note: Thus began one of the most fun experiences I’ve had since I started teaching – and I can only imagine how much further it will grow.]

What We’ve Done

In the past year, we have:
– had a ton of fun
– grown as teachers
– become more creative
– pushed ourselves to do what we can to connect our students more
– helped our students . . .wait, that’s the next point. Nevermind.

Last year our students:
– became more motivated to increase their reading volume through friendly challenges
– enjoyed book talks from their peers across Lake Michigan
– created and voted on March Book Madness brackets for their favorite characters (the ultimate winner was Peeta from Hunger Games in case you’re wondering)
– had two #throwdown friendly competitions (everyone wins when they read more!)
– read hundreds of books

This year we hope to:
– continue to do the awesome things we have going
– create even more Awesome things to help our students connect about the books they are reading
– connect more via video to bring the person into the room even when our schedules don’t line up for live sharing (silly time zones)
– come together, after reading Wonder, for some sort of public service campaign to #choosekind
– have our students create more online content to share
– collaborate on a new blog (which you know, since you’re already here, I suppose)!

Reflections & Realizations

This experience of sister classrooming has not only grown us as teachers [we tend to be a little competitive and seem to push each other to get more creative], but also grown what our perspective of the classroom walls can really be. You may not always have someone in your own school that you feel you can really collaborate with in a way that makes you push yourself further (lucky for you if you do!), but you may be able to find it somewhere else. One thing we know is this: teaching is NOT a solitary job, and we all benefit when we put more smart minds together to build on each other’s ideas to create even better ones.

Our Challenge to You – Find Your Own Sister Classroom!

So, if you’re interested and find this intriguing, our challenge to you: Go start your own Sister Classroom Project! If you’re in need of partners – try just throwing it out there on twitter. And link back to us and we’ll help with retweets and whatever advice we can give because when awesome ideas come around, we need to share them!

Jillian & Brian’s Top Ten Things You Might Want to Consider in Looking For a Sister Classroom Teacher:
1. A compatible level of snarkiness – trust us, this one has kept us sane this year!
2. Someone who has the same “do ahead” or “do last minute” personality as you. [Note: this blog post was discussed in May. And June. And July. And August. And September. Finally, it was actually created in September (after a lot of work by Jillian in May/June). We might be “do last minute” people.]
3. A teacher who is willing to communicate via twitter, text message, facebook, email, or phone call (sometimes all at the same time!).
4. Same or adjacent time zones can make for more convenient communication.
5. Think of how you interact with your own siblings and their personalities. Now find a teacher with whom you interact in the same way. Guaranteed success! (or so says Jillian; Brian refuses to guarantee anything. OK, fine, Jillian amends to “almost guaranteed” success-should probably have added that it only works if you like your siblings in the first place.) [See: compatible level of snarkiness]
6. A teacher who is willing and able to be flexible with his/her schedule/curriculum to allow for collaboration
7. Sharing a brain makes things very efficient. As evidenced by every now and then, tweeting the same thing at the same time, without consulting each other. (While not strictly following the laws of physics, I can’t count the number of times we were emailing/commenting on something at the same time the other one was thinking of it.)
8. Look for a teacher who has a similar educational philosophy as you. It can be centered around one thing (love of books and choice!) or multiple pedagogical areas, but it helps to be on the same page.
9. It’s small and subtle, but it probably helps if they’re on the same #hatback team (Go #teamdeer!)
10. Someone who lives in a state that has cool things to send to the other. I mean, come on, who wouldn’t love a delivery of fudge or cheese curds? (Jillian secretly adds that Brian has no idea what Wisconsin item he’s going to be forced to display in his classroom this year.)