Helping Families Support Literacy

NCTE Inbox‘s great post “Helping Families Support Readers” is a great resource for teachers looking for materials to support family literacy and summer reading programs. My own tips:

  • Read by example. Let your children see you with a book in your hand, enjoying reading, and they will want to do it, too.
  • Read to your children. Keep reading to them even after they learn to read for themselves.
  • Set aside class time to read. I don’t do this well because my current school schedule doesn’t allow for it, but when I student taught, my supervising teacher set aside each Friday for reading. Also, the entire school had time set aside two days a week when everyone was supposed to drop everything and read. It had a tremendous impact on SAT scores.
  • If you can, allow for some choice. For instance, if you teach American literature, you might want to teach Edgar Allan Poe, but you can allow students to pick which story (or which three stories) they read. You can also allow students to pick a book or two on their own and get credit for a project or paper based on that book. I have successfully integrated this kind of outside reading in my classes before.
  • Make suggestions. I suggested a reluctant reader try Stephenie Meyer‘s books, and she loved them. She might not have tried them out if I hadn’t said I thought she would like them.
  • Give parents and students resources. Many times I have had parents lament that they can’t get their sons to read, for example. I point them toward Guys Read, which has some great suggestions for books for boys.

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Doing School

Doing SchoolDenise Clark Pope explores some interesting ideas in Doing School. Pope shadowed five different students who were chosen by school officials. All were considered high achievers, but the group was diverse. Pope’s goal was to determine how students viewed school. It turns out most of them saw school as a means to an end — work the system (notice I didn’t say work hard) in order to get grades, which will lead to acceptance at a good college and a lucrative career. The aim of school, in the minds of these students, was definitely not to engage in the material or to learn. Their passions, for the most part, lay outside of the standard curriculum. One student was most proud of the community service organization he started. Another was an accomplished actress and scheduled the rest of her classes around drama. A third student was happiest when he could help others.

Because the book only follows five students, it cannot necessarily be considered a scientific study; however, I recognized the students and teachers described in the book. Some of them resorted to cheating. Others made “treaties” with teachers — agreements that allowed the students to do work for other classes in a certain teacher’s class. One girl relied heavily on caffeine — coffee and No Doze comprised much of her diet. The fact that these students look familiar should be alarming because the students are collapsing under the stress of making good grades and violating their own principles in order to make grades they feel are necessary to accomplish their goals. I actually wish, like Pope, that we could figure out a way to eliminate grades, but the fault lies deeper than America’s schools. When the students graduate from high school, they will most likely engage in the same tactics in college and even into their careers. Ultimately, educators have been discussing this problem since Dewey, and not much has changed. I think, in our heart of hearts, that’s because we don’t want it to change. We are just not sure how else to do school, and we’re afraid to try.

I would definitely recommend that teachers read this book. Those teachers in schools where students are struggling to pass classes might read this book wishing their students had these problems; however, struggling students have their own stresses. I think teachers in “high-performing” schools — schools where the majority of students plan to go to college — will find these five students familiar. School isn’t an engaging place, at least not much of the time, for either group of students. If you can’t get away from grades — and I recognize that grades aren’t going anywhere — you can at least do your own part to recognize school from the students’ point of view and try to make your own classroom engaging so that students will view their learning as meaningful and important. And not just because of the grade.

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The Bluest Eye

The Bluest EyeToni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye is frequently challenged due to situations involving rape and incest. When I first read it several years ago, I found it shocking, but I think it teaches us interesting things about how we define beauty in our society, what acceptance and love are, and how we harm not just black women but our entire society with narrow ideas about beauty and acceptance.

My ninth grade students will read The Bluest Eye as the last novel study this year. I think we will have time to do a study of short fiction and poetry in May following this book. I have just created a UbD unit for this novel; feel free to check it out and give me feedback. One thing I have noticed about myself is that when I create these units, I really skimp on the Learning Plan part. I think that might be because my schedule is so different from most other teachers with a rotating block and frequent schedule alterations that it is hard for me to make a day-by-day plan at the beginning, but I do have a chronological outline for approaching the novel. I will begin with the following video:

Every time I watch this video, it makes me cry — right at the part when the children are choosing dolls. I once had a student who wrote an essay about what she would be like as she aged, and with each progression in age, she noted that her skin was lighter (she was fairly dark-skinned). Part of her definition of future success involved something she couldn’t do anything about — something she shouldn’t feel like she should have to do anything about. I remember crying over that essay, too. And feeling helpless.

I found an excellent webquest by Cele Bisguier that I will use for my performance task.

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Week in Reflection: March 31-April 4, 2008

This week was a really good week for me, personally, which I think translates often into good teaching.

One of my ninth grade classes is completely done with The Catcher in the Rye, and the other is still in the discussion part of studying the novel. The discussions have been good. Students always seem to enjoy this book. One of my students who didn’t like it actually asked me if there was something he was missing, as all of his classmates seemed to like it, and he expected to like it. I confided that I didn’t like it either in high school, but I loved it years later when I read it again. When I was in high school, I had trouble getting past the part when Holden hires Sunny, the teenage prostitute. Even though they do not, shall we say, complete the transaction, and Holden winds up getting beaten up by her pimp, I found the notion that he would even hire a prostitute distasteful. I just didn’t like Holden. Years later, with more experiences and perhaps more empathy, I viewed Holden entirely differently. I think it helped my student to hear that he is perfectly fine, thank you very much, if he doesn’t like the novel. On the other hand, one of his classmates read the novel four times before it was due. I am in a quandary about this student, too, because this student did not perform well on my reading quiz, which should have been a breeze after reading the novel four times. I still can’t figure out how that happened, but it makes me feel rotten. Talk about a motivation-killer.

I am teaching grammar, specifically phrases and clauses. I have some problems with the efficacy of this required part of my curriculum.

I had interesting conversations with a few senior students this week. They are presenting their Flat World Willy handbooks on Monday. The conversations we had centered around the idea that a few of the students recognize that I (and their other teachers) are trying to put together good learning experiences that are relevant to their lives, and I think they like the handbook assignment. But they are also frustrated by working with peers whose minds are already checked out. I have heard more than once, “I didn’t want to come to school, but I thought about you, Mrs. Huff, and how mad it makes you when we skip class.” I suppose I should be grateful that the students have empathy for my feelings after planning and being disappointed, but I wish they came to school because they wanted to learn. Their course loads have been pared down. They are doing internships in the afternoons. Their minds are on the colleges they will shortly be attending. I can empathize with them. I remember that feeling. Heck, I got accepted to grad school this week, and I was elated. Even though I am taking courses online, registering for my Virginia Tech personal identity so I could login and use all the resources available to me as a student made it feel very real — I feel like I am going back to school, and I am excited. But my students haven’t graduated yet, which is an important step to attending college, and I don’t want them to check out when have such a small amount of time together.

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