Slice of Life #19: “The Best Book I Ever Read”

Previous visitors might remember that I am implementing independent reading. Students have shared their reading progress for their first full week of independent reading. Almost all of them met their reading goals. A few observations:

  • Most of the students are enjoying their books. One boy declared in class today that Kwame Alexander’s book The Crossover is the “best book [he’s] ever read.” He’s been recommending it to others. Another said of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, “This is a really intense and fun book to read, the pictures in the book combine [with] the writing really well and make it even more interesting.”
  • One student said he wasn’t enjoying his book, and I emailed him to let him know it’s okay to abandon it and move on. I think he just needed to know it was okay.
  • One girl finished a project we’ve been working on and read for the entire 75-minute period today. And she told me at the beginning of the year that she didn’t like reading and didn’t read for fun.
  • Some of them need to recalibrate their goals. I had them use Penny Kittle’s method of counting how many pages they can read in ten minutes, then multiplying that figure by six and then doubling it to determine how much they can read in two hours. Some of them didn’t factor in needing to look up words (I have many English language learners in my classes) in their time.
  • One student emailed me to let me know her page count was proving unrealistic, so she recalibrated on her own. I like the fact that my students are doing this kind of thinking: adjusting their own goals and taking ownership over their reading.
  • One student finished John Lewis’s graphic memoir March: Book One. He picked up March: Book II and checked out Winger for over the break.

My student who is reading The Crossover is an interesting student. He’s one of those real charmers, a leader in the classroom. The other students tend to look to him. He’s easily the most outgoing student in the class, so when he says a book is the best book he’s ever read, the others are going to add it to their list. He said he is close to finishing his book and will need another “to read over the break.” And I said, “Yes, of course, because I want you all to keep reading over the break.” He joked that he would cuddle up with the book and a nice cup of tea. I told him he was describing my idea of a party.

So far, the independent reading is quite a success. I am pleased to see the students reading so much. I’ve had a good time reading along with them (I haven’t done any reading conferences yet because at this time, I haven’t identified a need).

The students are already establishing the routine of reading at the beginning of class. I forgot to set the timer and remind them to read today in one class, and they started without me!

As I’ve promised before, I’ll keep posting updates about how independent reading is working. It’s off to a strong start.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Independent Reading Step 1: Selecting Books

My Class Book Speed Dating
Photo by Jenn Hanson

 On Thursday, I took my students to our library, and our Director of Library Services, Jenn Hanson, booktalked several titles. Next, students took 30 seconds to select a book from the clear plastic bins at each table (or grabbed one of the books she booktalked). Students read the books for four minutes, then gave the books a rating (whatever rating scale they wanted to use), and put the book back. Jenn called it “book speed dating,” and I think the students really liked it. We did four rounds, and typically, students had a book in mind that they wanted to read after that.

Students checked out books and we calibrated their reading speed. I asked them to read at a comfortable pace for 10 minutes. After that we multiplied how many pages they could read in 10 minutes by 6 to get the number of pages per hour, then doubled that number for the pages that could be read in 2 hours. I want them to read 2 hours per week at a comfortable pace.

In class the next day, there were some questions about pages. What if some books had poems and you could read them faster? Yes, that happens, so you need to recalibrate for the new book when you get it.

My Class Book Speed Dating
Photo by Jenn Hanson

I participated too, and I was able to find several books to put on my own reading list. I had asked students to turn to the last page of their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebooks to make a list, and every student had several titles written down.

I didn’t notice any overt resistance. Everyone, even my students who describe themselves as non-readers, found a book. In class the next day, all but one of the students remembered to bring their books (and I happened to have had a copy of his book to lend him for class).

I booktalked Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian the next day (only in one class because the other doesn’t meet again until Monday, at which time I’ll share the Alexie book with that class). I told students if it sounded interesting to put it on their list, and I notice that several students wrote the title down in their notebooks.

I also asked students to find one sentence that they really liked for some reason in their independent read and copy it down in their Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook then write one or two sentences about why they liked it. We all shared our sentences. I suggested that if someone’s sentence sounded interesting, students might want to write the title of the book it came from down as well.

The independent reading is off to an encouraging start. The students all chose great books, and Jenn was wonderful at engaging the students in selecting their books.

Updated 12/5/15 to add a link to Jenn’s post about our library visit on her blog.

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Slice of Life #18: NaNoWriMo

NaNo-2015-Winner-BannerI participated in NaNoWriMo this year. I have participated in the past, and I have the start of three books I’d really like to return to one day as a result. I have only “won” one other time, however. This year, I decided I wanted to have a lot of fun, so I took a leaf out of Rainbow Rowell’s book and wrote a Harry Potter fanfic. A lot of people might consider writing fanfiction a waste of time, but the fact is that I did write over 50,000 words, and I had fun. Penny Kittle says in Book Love,  “We all need more fun with writing. I’m serious about this. Play leads to good writing, and good writing begets better writing” (73). This advice came to me at a crucial point in the writing of my NaNoWriMo novel: the point at which was starting to feel like a dork for writing a fanfic. When I came across those three sentences, it was like receiving permission to be a dork, and in fact, to celebrate it because it would make me a better writer if I played a bit more. And it has. It seems like meeting a 1,000-2,000 word count goal is not the challenge it used to be. Some days, I could, in fact, knock out 2,000 words in a couple of hours. One mad day, I wrote 10,000 words.

So I am writing my Slice of Life post today about how happy I am that I won NaNoWriMo. I made myself write every single day, even when I didn’t feel like it. I made myself go over the required 1,667 words whenever it was feasible so I could have insurance for days when meeting that minimum was not going to happen. That turned out to be the best strategy because I went to NCTE so far ahead that I could get away writing very little those four days I was gone. But I still wrote every day.

I have no idea where my story is going, and at this point, crazy things are happening that I didn’t anticipate. It’s more or less like being possessed and just recording whatever it is that the characters do. And I have to admit that at first (until I started feeling bad), I was extremely excited, and what I was writing was good. Later, I started to feel less good about it, but it was okay because it was a fanfic, so a “shitty first draft” was permitted. What I learned from this experience is that I need to give myself permission to write shitty first drafts every time. I teach my students about the importance of process, but the truth about my own writing is that I want it to be perfect the first time. And that’s not how writing works, and I know it.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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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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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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