All posts by Dana Huff

Wife, mother, indie writer, reader, book and education blogger, Technology Integration Specialist, and English teacher.  Fangirl.

Independent Reading

I’ve been meaning to get around to starting independent reading in my classroom for years. Honest. But like so many things I’ve been “meaning” to do, I put it off. I did finally buy Penny Kittle’s Book Love back in June, and I fully intended to read it. It is true that I had a busier than normal summer. So busy it might in fact be called a non-summer. But I didn’t pick it up and didn’t pick it up. Right around mid-fall, I could feel that malaise creeping in. I’m not talking about the students. I’m talking about me. Then I went to NCTE, which always rejuvenates me and keeps me going for the rest of the school year. Once again, I heard the discussions about independent reading. Finally, something clicked. I think there is a statistic about how many times you have to be exposed to an idea before you pay attention to it. I decided to do it, and I decided not to wait until the second semester starts in January. We’re starting right now, this first week of December. Independent reading is finally going to happen for real in my classroom.

At the beginning of the school year, I ask students to write an educational autobiography for me. I want to know what school has been like for my students. I want to know about how they perceive themselves as students, as readers, and as writers. Almost all of my eleventh graders confessed they don’t like to read and do not read for pleasure. That’s a staggering statistic. They are not going to magically become life-long readers, which I say is one of my goals for them, if I don’t do something. I think the students in my class, the ones who say they don’t like reading, just don’t know what they like to read. They haven’t found a book yet. I will admit that I try some different things that make literature study more interesting for students. Literature circles, for example. One of my students confessed he had never read so far into a book as he had the book my students were reading in November, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I attribute that stamina to the literature circle.

If I had ever been asked to choose my own books to read for pleasure in school, it would have been my favorite class ever, and those ten minutes or so at the beginning of the period would have been my favorite part of the day. But I was a reader, and I became a reader in spite of my teachers, not because of them. I don’t actually have memories of reading something I really liked in school (after elementary school, that is) until 11th grade, when we read To Kill a Mockingbird, but even in that case, I didn’t choose to read that book. It was assigned. I read my own things outside of school. I actually liked reading, and I didn’t enjoy the selections chosen by my teachers. Sometimes, I even faked my way through reading because I couldn’t keep up with the assigned reading. I didn’t want to fake it. I actually wanted to read the books. I even faked my way through one of the books I was assigned in college. Even though I didn’t always do my assigned reading, I actually really wanted to read and loved to read. If my students don’t love to read, think how much more they must be faking their way through reading. Sometimes, later on (never at the time), former students have confessed to me that they didn’t read a text I assigned.

I firmly believe no one is going to die if they don’t read a certain book. I know that feeling is pervasive in secondary education, but one reason I don’t share it is that I myself had such a patchy high school education that I managed to graduate and even major in English Education (which at my school, meant only two fewer English courses, before you complain it isn’t as rigorous as English) without having ever read such essentials as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, and so many others. In fact, had I not read them on my own, I also would have missed The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Can you believe I’m still here to tell the tale? What happened was that I read all those books later. I actually think I read them at the perfect time for me to read them, too. So even though I love leading students through a work of literature and watching them enjoy it, I also want them to become readers, and I think this year in particular, my students need my help to figure out how to do that.

Enter Book Love. Though I’m not finished reading it yet, I already have some advice on how to start, which is what I really needed. I had several questions about how this should look, including what to grade and how to grade it. Kittle covers all of that ground in the book. I scheduled a visit to the library, and our librarian plans to book talk some titles so that my students can make their first selections. I have already begun the process of hauling my own books to donate to my classroom library. I even spent some time last week organizing the books on shelves. Once my library is big enough, I’ll organize it by genre, which I think will help students find what they want to read more quickly.

One thing I especially appreciate about Kittle’s approach is that she doesn’t recommend scrapping the literature study in favor of all independent reading. I find our discussions of the literature we read together to be rich and rewarding. I have heard a lot of teachers who seem to me to be ditching the full-class novel entirely in favor of independent reading, and I am not ready to do that at all. Kittle says the key is balance. We need to create life-long learners and build time for independent reading. But students also benefit from full-class novels. I actually don’t teach a lot of novels in my eleventh grade classes, so I think weaving independent reading into the curriculum should be fairly easy and shouldn’t strain my curriculum too much. But I say that if it does, then perhaps some texts need to go. I am here to serve the students, and that doesn’t mean cramming as much curriculum in as I can.

Other teachers at our school are trying independent reading with great success. It feels great to be in their classrooms, watching them conference with students about their reading and talking about books. As much as I knew independent reading was the right thing to do and as much as I wanted to do it, I somehow didn’t find the time to make it work. I think I just needed to hear one more time how important it is. Here we go. I’ll let you know what happens.

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Slice of Life #17: Thanksgiving

Slice of LifeToday was the last day of work before Thanksgiving break. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. In the last few years since we moved to Massachusetts, I have enjoyed cooking our large Thanksgiving meal. It seems appropriate to talk about what I’m thankful for today.

I’m thankful for my family and friends. I had a wonderful time in Minneapolis at NCTE this week. I missed my husband and children. I don’t travel much (just for work, really). We’re really sort of homebodies, and I know they are happier staying behind (even if they miss me, too). My childhood best friend Darcy lives in Minnesota, and we were able to get together while I was at NCTE. We had dinner together Thursday night.

Darcy and Dana

It was wonderful to see her again. It has been at least 20 years because my oldest was a baby, and she’ll be 22 next month. Darcy and I have been friends for 35 years now. On Saturday night, we took her children to see A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie Theater. We had an excellent time, and it was a great deal of fun to meet and talk with her children. I’ve heard so much about them over the years. Bright, funny, charming kids! I am exceedingly thankful to have been able to visit with Darcy while I was in Minneapolis.

I was also grateful to spend so much time with my friend Glenda Funk. We think a lot alike, and she pushes me in ways she probably doesn’t realize. She told me I go quiet in crowds, which is true. I’m an introvert, and as much as I can make myself go out and have fun, it’s a bit hard to be talkative at the same time. It’s just not my nature. But she told me that I should speak up more (in her kind way), and so I did, and I felt pretty good about it. I will try not to make it a one-off. I’m also thankful for old friends and new ones made at the conference. It was great to see Lee Ann Spillane, Gary Anderson, Kim McCollum Clark, Jennifer Ansbach, Paul Hankins, and so many others at the conference. There is nothing quite like being around so many of my people. It’s funny; someone at the conference mentioned that we English teachers can identify each other out in public, and it’s true. As I was riding into downtown Minneapolis on the light rail from the airport, I saw another woman sitting in my train car, and I could just tell she was an English teacher. Sure enough, she asked me if I was going to NCTE (I guess I look like an English teacher, too). I suppose after this weekend we shall also know each other by our red and black Scholastic bags.

I’m also thankful for books and the writers who go to this conference. I always walk away with a huge TBR list, as if it’s not huge enough already. Even though I feel like I read a lot (and I’ve just finished my 49th book for the year), I can’t touch some of the people who go to this conference. Book love is in the air at NCTE, and it’s one of the few places where I feel like a reading slacker. I am thankful that I came back from the conference committed to bringing independent reading into my classroom. Even though I believe in it and support it and was thrilled when my department members started doing it, I didn’t do it in my room yet. Yet. I would tell myself “Next year.” Well, this time, I told myself that even though the semester ends in January, we aren’t waiting. My students told me at the beginning of the year that they don’t like reading. I need to work on that. Honestly, if I were in an English class that had independent reading, even if it was only ten minutes at the beginning of the period, it would be my favorite ten minutes of the day. So I met with our librarian, the fantastic Jenn Hanson, who will select books for and talk about books with my students after Thanksgiving break. Exciting!

Today, in between parent/teacher conferences, I organized the books already in my room by fiction, poetry/drama, nonfiction/memoir, and PD/resources. I will be hauling books from home to school to flesh out the selections. I can’t wait to share with my students.

Finally, I’m thankful for folks who read anything I might have to say here and consider it worthwhile. I began this blog as sort of an experiment ten years ago, and though I sometimes feel pressure to write more and don’t know what to write, it has turned me into a reflective educator. I’m not sure I was as reflective before the blog. Thank you for joining me in that journey.

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NCTE 2015 Reflections

I had a great time at NCTE this year. I have, as usual, a lot to process. I walked away with some great ideas, too.

I really liked the High School Matters session, which I typically miss. I have a lot of great ideas for books to read, especially after also going to Carol Jago’s “share what you are reading” session right before High School Matters.

I went to the CEL roundtable last year and found it to be just as good this year. The Carnivals of Truth: Rainbow Perspectives on Critical Issues in ELA Roundtable was also excellent but poorly attended (more on that in a moment). I got some great stuff I can take into my class next week. Because there were few attendees, I was able to talk one-on-one at length with the presenters and ask them some questions about their work with students.

I love this photo with Kwame Alexander, Gary Anderson, Russ Anderson, and Jaclyn Han (I’m photobombing in the back).

I also enjoyed the session presented by friends Glenda Funk, Paul Hankins, and Lee Ann Spillane with Melissa Sweet, Word by Word: The Art of Crafting Responsibility and Creativity. I pulled some ideas for how I might use art and picture books with my own students.

My favorite artifact of that session is noticing that Glenda, Lee Ann, and I have matching haircuts and part our hair on the same side.

Now for the part that’s going to get me in trouble. But I’m trying to be a bit braver about discussing things that make me uncomfortable. I tend to be a kind of positive person, and I avoid conflict if I can. But I feel I should speak up.

I am really concerned about NCTE. I’m concerned that we have a few very popular voices and that those voices dominate the discussion. I am concerned that a handful of folks who have written some popular books have been elevated to rock stars and that we are not listening to others. More people should have been at that Rainbow Perspectives roundtable. But they weren’t because that session was up against some popular voices. Let me be clear: I don’t necessarily blame the popular folks for being popular.  I don’t know that these few folks necessarily cultivate a cult of personality, but what if they didn’t present every year? Just a thought I’m putting out there. I know full well I’ve presented several times, too, and perhaps it’s not fair of me to criticize, especially because the voices about which I speak are strong educators and advocates for what is best in English classrooms. Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps they deserve to direct the conversation.

My own session proposal was relegated to a poster session. Now, it is true that I have presented before, but so have the folks I’m talking about here, and from my point of view, they presented the same thing they have done in the past. It’s an important message that they have, and it should go out. I declined my invitation to present writing workshop and Socratic seminar as a poster session because it would not have worked. I cannot understand how NCTE thought it would. And I also cannot understand why we hear from the same voices every time. I cannot understand why proposals that involve people reading their papers are accepted. If I want to read a paper, I can read a paper. I go to sessions to learn about others’ ideas with the hope of adapting them for my own practice. I cannot understand why such presentations were given a room while my voice was effectively silenced in this conversation. I don’t mean to sound bitter because I’m not. I had a good conference, and I listened to some very good presenters. But I had some pretty good work to share, too, and it doesn’t fit on a poster.

It’s pretty easy to put slidedecks online or share links via URL shorteners. I don’t understand not putting your materials online, especially if you’re going through a slidedeck too fast for me to take notes. In 2015, this shouldn’t be a problem. I have to be firm on this one and take a stand. Participants will enjoy your sessions better if they are not scrambling to capture everything you say because you have not posted your slidedeck or materials online. NCTE makes this one easy, folks. You don’t even need to have a website or storage space. Having said that, if you don’t intend to share it, is there anything wrong with telling the audience and explaining your reasoning?

I have to admit I wasn’t happy about the protest. First of all, I fully support a boycott of Pearson. I support protesting their intrusion into education. I don’t agree with the things that company is doing. That said, the folks in the booth are not the people we are angry with. They are not the people we really need to listen to us. They are just some folks selling books and materials. Putting myself in their place, I would have felt mortified. True, they could work for someone else. But sometimes we don’t have a lot of choices about work. The people NCTE members need to mount a protest against are the Department of Education, the state governors, the legislators, and the administrators. By all means boycott Pearson by refusing to purchase their products. The protest was not aimed at the people that should have heard it. If we really want to be brave and reclaim education,  we could try directing that protest to the right people. Perhaps it’s not my place to say anything because I’m not a public school educator. I work in private school, and Pearson does not test my students nor does it/will it test me. Maybe I don’t have a right to speak out on this issue at all, as a result. But you know what? Some of the folks in the protest are also not K-12 public school teachers. If we care about education, we should be able to speak about issues that concern us, even if they don’t touch us in the same ways.

The Minneapolis Convention Center was a great venue. It was easy to navigate (that was refreshing for a change), and the rooms were a good size, so plenty of people could fit in the various sessions offered. Also, there were plenty of amenities such as snack bars, bathrooms, easy recycling. It was close to the hotels and restaurants as well as public transportation. NCTE is doing a much better job at least determining rooms for sessions. I didn’t go into a single session that was too full for me to find a seat. There were some issues with the coat check station, but those were the only inconveniences I experienced with the venue.

I realize some of the points I’ve made here are not popular ones, but I do hope we can have a civil dialogue about these issues. NCTE is important to me. I have been a member since I was in college preparing to be an English teacher. NCTE has been critical in my evolution as a reflective teacher of English language arts. I have actually left another organization because it is plagued with problems related to, for lack of a better way to put it, a sort of rock star faction that took over the organization and turned it into something cliquish and deeply uncomfortable to experience. I can’t foresee attending that other organization’s conference again. Ultimately, I could let it go because it wasn’t important for me to involve myself in that organization. But NCTE is too important for me to lose to that mentality, too.

As always, I appreciate the work that NCTE does to bring authors to the conference. I was able to meet and have books signed by Alison Bechdel, Deborah Wiles, and Laurie Halse Anderson.

Alison Bechdel

Deborah Wiles

Laurie Halse AndersonI plan to go next year in Atlanta. Despite some of the issues I raised, I still value NCTE as the best conference for professional development.

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Teaching Science

This week, Worcester Academy’s science department chair and teacher of physics and engineering has been out on paternity leave (congratulations, Derek!). At our school, we try to cover for each other when we have to be out. I opted to take two of Derek’s classes, an engineering class and a physics class, for a few reasons: 1) I like to help out when I can because it can be hard to get your classes covered, 2) I really wanted a peek into what Derek is doing in his classes, and 3) I like to see how students work in classes outside my subject.

Derek is a project-based educator. It was fascinating to visit his classes, even his absence, and see what his students are doing. I subbed in his engineering class yesterday. Students were building a wind tunnel and constructing cars using modeling clay. I know this is leading up to an interesting experiment, but I admit I don’t know a lot about it. I was fascinated watching the students work. They got right to work and knew exactly what to do in Derek’s absence. They were busy the entire time. In fact, I had to make them stop so they could clean up.

In physics today, students were conducting a test using Hot Wheels ramps. The students had to construct the ramps so that their cars, set loose at the top of the ramp, would fly cleanly through  hoop on a stand. I think that if Derek had been present, the plan was for the hoop to be on fire. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do anything that involved fire, but when the students were ready to do the final test, they had to let me know, and I needed to watch. It was so exciting. I have to admit I’ve never taken physics, so I don’t feel qualified to explain the purpose of the experiment. The students were so nervous for each other. One student (whom I also teach), was also anxious for the other groups (besides her own) to be successful in their experiment. The students had to turn in their lab writeups. All period long, there was action. Students were measuring, checking measurements, running tests. Cars were flying across the room. Again, students knew just what to do and got right to work, even in Derek’s absence.

One aspect of subbing for Derek that fascinated me was watching my own students in a science class. Students who rarely speak in my class or are quiet and reticent are active and participate in Derek’s classes. Part of that is their comfort level with the material. I am thinking in particular of international students who do not speak English as a first language. It was interesting to see this completely different side of my students. It was fascinating to see their level of confidence shift in a different subject.

I have to admit I’m jealous of these kids. I wish I had a science teacher who had made science half as interesting as Derek does. I really want to go back and observe when Derek is present. His classes ran so well with minimal help from me. I feel like his students were doing all of the work. I spoke to a few of them. I said to one girl today, “This seems like such a fun class,” and she said, “Yes, and we do stuff like this every day.” To a boy in engineering yesterday, I said the same thing, and he said, “Yes, it’s my favorite class.”

I can’t believe how much I learned from Derek even though he wasn’t present. His classes are so engaging, and he really gets project-based learning. Our students are lucky. I’m lucky to have him for a colleague. He has much to teach the rest of us.

If you get a chance to visit a class outside your domain, you should do it. It’s really interesting to see your students working in a different subject, especially when it’s under the guidance of such a gifted educator.

You can follow Derek on Twitter and read his blog.

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Slice of Life #16: NCTE 2015

Slice of LifeI spent a good part of today looking over the workshops for the NCTE Annual Conference. I am noticing a few interesting trends.

First, there seem to be quite a few workshops focusing on using our voices for advocacy. It’s not really surprising that in a time when many teachers feel silenced or ignored, it’s great to see NCTE encouraging teachers to find their voices, and especially to blog. Many folks will say blogging is on the way out, but I maintain it’s still relevant (of course, I must; I’m blogging at this very moment). Time is a very important reason teachers give for not blogging (tech know-how is another). The tools are pretty easy to learn (most of them are WYSIWYG and are familiar to word processor users), but time is not so easy. I maintain, as I frequently do, that we make time for the things that are important to us, and if blogging is important, then we’ll make time for it.

Second, I’m noticing that I am much more drawn to Rainbow Strand and LGBT Strand sessions than I have been in the past. I have been doing some work with inclusive classrooms at school, and I find myself connecting to ideas around diversity. In fact, I have begun to approach my teaching of American literature through this lens.

I am also noticing argumentative writing as a motif in the sessions. I am really not up on the Common Core. I imagine this must be a part of it? (Folks who might not know: I teach in an independent school, and we have created our own Portrait of a Learner.)

I am not sure I can articulate this half-formed thought, but I’m going to try. I find myself at a crossroads of sorts. I’m trying to figure out what I believe as a teacher. I’ve shifted a lot since I started writing this blog. I have written about ideas and beliefs here, and I find that I no longer agree with myself. I don’t think I’ve really processed some of the ways in which I’ve changed. What is non-negotiable? In particular, as my role as a department chair/leader, what do I need to do to bring my department to the place where I want it to be and where the school wants it to be? Like I said, these thoughts are not fully formed. I am trying to figure out exactly who I am as an English teacher. I guess, in some ways, I am working on some identity issues. Perhaps that is why I am so attracted to discussions about students’ identities. I don’t know.

Am I going to see you at NCTE?

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Slice of Life #14: Corrections

Slice of LifeI didn’t write a Slice last week because I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo, and I spent last Tuesday writing all evening. I did want to share a quick Slice this week because I have a few things on my mind—the first two just housekeeping items.

First of all, I’m prepping for attending NCTE at the end of next week, and I’m hoping to see you all there. If we run into each other, please say hi. Also, if you want to connect while we’re there, let me know that, too.

Second, for those of you who wondered, my AP Audit was accepted. I have written before about how much work went into it. I was relieved and gratified when it passed without any suggested revisions or edits, and I sincerely thanked my instructor, who emphasized the importance of including clear revision policies on the syllabus.

The revision policy leads me to my next point. I have been assigning AP-style multiple choice practice to my students and counting it as a quiz grade. I give students a passage and ten questions at a time. I use total points, so I just count the quizzes ten points. I decided after the first such quiz to allow students who earned 7/10 or less an opportunity to do corrections. I mentioned this policy to my class, and one of my students pointed out he wasn’t sure it was fair for those who earned an 8/10 or better not to have a shot as well. I wasn’t sure if earning back one or two points would make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, but I acknowledged he was right and said anybody could do corrections. Not all of my students opt to do so. Many of them do, however, and after a couple of rounds of quizzes, I’m really pleased that I decided to allow students to do corrections and also that I listened to my student’s feedback about broadening the policy. Analyzing where they went wrong and determining why the correct answer is indeed correct will help them build their analysis skills so that they will perform better on the exam. Even if they opt not to take the exam, it will serve them well in terms of helping them analyze the questions more critically.

Just as an example of the thinking that students do on these quizzes, I offer the following examples. Students were quizzed over the passage near the end of King Lear (5.3) when Edgar is filling in the others on where he has been and what he’s been doing. He says, “List a brief tale, / And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst!”

One question on the quiz asked

“The word “list” in line 2 means”

  1. Tell.

  2. Enumerate.

  3. Count.

  4. Listen.

  5. Cunning.

Many students missed this question because “list” is used today more like “B. Enumerate.” However, in the context of the quote, that answer doesn’t make sense, and that particular answer did not prove to be the distractor, as I assumed it would be. Students seemed able to eliminate both “C. Count” and “E. Cunning” with no trouble. They had a little more trouble with the one I thought they would NOT be confused by because Edgar tells his story, so why would he be asking Albany to “A. Tell” a story?

From one student who gave the answer “A. Tell,” his reasoning:

The answer should be D—listen—because it makes more sense for Edgar to be instructing Albany to hear a tale rather than having him tell one, especially when Edgar goes on to tell his story. It caught me off guard a little because I thought that “tell” fit best grammatically, but the idea was wrong.

I thought his reasoning was really interesting and showed a lot of insight into why it might have tripped the students up. He is right: “tell” does fit best grammatically. It might be better to say “listen to” for D to work grammatically, but the answer is, indeed, D, as the student reasoned, and for the reasons he describes.

Another student who missed the same question and provided the same incorrect answer said the following in her correction:

In line 2 it says “List a brief tale, And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst.” Here list means to listen, because then it continues on to say when I am done telling my story my heart will burst. It does not make sense for list to mean tell because within the same sentence it says when its [sic] done being told, therefore it wouldn’t make sense to “tell” a story when it is being “told.”

I see what she’s saying, and I think she understands how she went wrong based on what she says in the first part, though it might be more accurate for her to say it doesn’t make sense for Edgar to ask Albany to “tell” him a tale when he then goes on to tell one himself.

A third example from a student who also chose the same answer, “A. Tell”:

Although I initially chose A., the correct answer is D. Although “Listing” and “telling” are both highly synonymous words, the context makes it clear that Edgar is not ordering that the story is being told: “List a brief tale / And when ’tis told, O, that my heart would burst (Lines 1-2). If Edgar was ordering that the story be told, then he would speak in the 2nd person, i. e. “And when thou tells it.” The term “tell” and “enumerate” are also soullessly [sic] synonymous that there would not be now a clear answer if either A. or B. had been chosen.

This student clearly reasons through why he was confused, and it has more to do with the answer I thought would be the distractor: “B. Enumerate.”

One last example:

The reason I put “A. Tell” for this one is because at the end of the sentence Edgar says, “List a brief tale, / And when ’tis told” when I saw “told” I figured “List” was another way of saying “tell.” Before I went and second guessed myself I thought the correct answer was “D. Listen,” evident on my quiz because it was the only other answer I didn’t cross off. “Listen” makes more sense in the context of the statement.

This last student gets to one of the most common reasons students make errors with multiple choice questions: they second-guess themselves and think their first hunches are wrong.

I am learning some really interesting things about my students’ thinking by reading through their quiz corrections. Ultimately, I think it’s great for them to think through why they answered incorrectly and explain why the correct answer is the best answer. It will help them approach these questions with more confidence in the future. I am not concerned about any sort of artificial inflation. I asked myself if I was more concerned about grades or whether or not students learned the material. Since the answer for me is obviously the latter, then I’m happy to give them points back for thinking through their mistakes.

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