The seventh graders at Olle Middle School in Alief ISD aren’t just readers  – they’re literary rebels.  And they’re proud of it, proud enough to show up on the last day of school wearing black t-shirts bearing the slogan “Literary Rebel – I read past my bedtime.” If this bold show of academic enthusiasm seems uncharacteristic of a middle schooler, we have reading teacher Melissa Ford to thank.  With support from Houston A+ Challenge Literacy Coach Gwynne Grohmann, Mrs. Ford transformed her classes into communities of readers. Nelda Billescas, Principal of Olle, described Ms. Ford’s transformation as an educator over the past year. Before, Melissa was an average teacher.  She had kids that could do the learning, and they did.  Kids are going to learn.  They passed.  But she was burned out.  She was ready to leave.  She was interviewing at every district.  Now she’s one of the best teachers we have.  Now she’s growing kids.  To be able to move those kids who are already at the top, that’s difficult.  Her kids grew by 40%. The feeling that you get, the warmth, when you walk in her room – it’s a community. They take care of each other, they take care of the space.  You can see it when you walk in the room.  You can hear it in the conversations they’re having – having book talks, helping each other.  It’s bright.  The kids are in groups, working on worksheets, and they’ve got a list of things to get through, and they’re just getting it done.  The depth of the work is awesome, and the relationships. Melissa did this herself.  She came in and asked “what kind of professional development do you have?” She wanted more than the usual trainings we do.  We had some other teachers working with A+ coaches, so we got her involved in that. This summer, we’re asking her to lead a PD about what has happened in her classroom.  We want to get more of the classrooms to look like this. In an interview, Melissa Ford reflected on the courageous change she undertook as a teacher, and the incredible change she’s seen in her classroom and students. On trying a new approach: we love readingThere were points during this that didn’t make sense to me, based on how I was trained. But kids have told me, “I like your class because I learn well in here. I like the routine and I know what to expect.”  There were things during this process that I didn’t get, but I just trust the process. On creating a classroom community: One of the best things about all this is the community.  When I was pregnant and I had to go to doctor’s appointments in the afternoon, they ran the class. They take care of things.  I had to let go of some control, make it a “we” environment where I’m not a dictator.  I only teach for about 15 minutes, and then the rest of the time I’m coming around, building relationships through conferring and talking about books.  And I’m giving them choices, so they have a voice in the community too. On instilling a love of reading: I said to them that I don’t care if they pass their STAAR tests and all that, I just want them to find a love of reading, because that’s going to take you places in your life.  Everything else will just fall into place. I’ve come to love it just as much as they do. Even when I was a GT teacher and my students had summer reading, I never read any of them.  But after teaching with just right books, teaching about picking interesting books – now I have found a love for reading, and a habit for reading.  I’m a reader now as a result of this classroom. On getting it all started: At the start of the year, I didn’t teach inferencing and summarizing, I didn’t start with the pacing calendar. I taught community and choosing a just right book.  I got $500 of books from DonorsChoose.  For the kids, it clicked probably after the first month.  I wasn’t worried that they were taking books.  I didn’t have any discipline problems. I could come around and they honestly wanted to talk to me about their work. On beating the burnout: I go home now and I’m not tired, I’m energized.  I’m getting to know the kids better, just as people, and also as students. On a life changed: Every Friday, all they do is book talks – they talk about the book they’re reading, and it’s a major grade.  Leslie, who’s an ESL student, was very shy and would never do a book talk.  So one day Leslie was looking for a book, and Ms. Grohmann [my A+ coach]suggested Beauty by Robin McKinley.  Leslie came back two days later and said “I finished the book.  This is the first big book I’ve ever finished.  What’s next?” She found an author she loved, and she finished all ten books. Now every day I see her in the hall, she’s carrying a new book.  She asks me to buy things on Amazon.  She does book talks now.  She’s outgoing, and she got commended on her STAAR test.  On being literary rebels: My kids in 7th period were talking about their reading.  One told me “I get in trouble for reading – I don’t do my chores.”  Another girl said “I get in trouble too!” They’re getting in trouble for reading – how awesome is that???  And I’ve had to be a little bit of a rebel as well. The other teachers stopped doing it after two months, so now I’m doing what other people in the department aren’t doing, because I feel that this is best for students. Special thanks for underwriting the t-shirts go to Katy Hays, Chief Grants Officer for The Brown Foundation.  Ms. Hays, daughter of two schoolteachers, noted that when she learned of the prototype t-shirt, she was moved to sponsor them because she deeply understands the power of a great teacher.

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