My (Non)Reader

reading photo
Photo by ZapTheDingbat

One of my students is a big reader. Since we started our independent reading project in December, she has read seven books. The last book she read was All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. She said the book was so good she can’t even explain it. She comes in and chats about her books, and she loves the independent reading.

One of the things I enjoy most about independent reading is putting the right books in the hands of eager readers. Students are starting to swap their own recommendations, which is really amazing. I have tried to share a book with them each time class meets, and I received a very nice thank you from one of my students for sharing so many books with them.

The truth is, as much as the independent reading seems to be working well with my students, I can’t seem to figure out how to get my daughter to read. I have tried buying books I think she would like and recommending favorites. I stay up on what teenagers are reading and what they like to read. If anyone is poised to raise a reader, I should think it would be me. I did all the right things. I read to all my children. I model a love of reading for them. I made sure they grew up surrounded by books. I’m just flummoxed.

Several years ago, I recommended Twilight to a girl I was teaching. She wasn’t a reader, but I thought she’d enjoy it. She loved it, and she talked her mother into a late evening trip to Barnes & Noble to buy the next one. Her mother was in tears of gratitude at the next parent/teacher conference because her daughter was now a reader. By senior year, she showed me she was reading a fat Alison Weir biography of Henry VIII. It was her own choice. She wasn’t reading it for class.

The year before, a student in my class discovered a love of reading after we studied The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. In his senior year, he was reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which inspired the 2007 movie There Will Be Blood. It was his own choice. He wasn’t reading it for class.

I’ve been successful convincing my students to give reading a chance. One of my most reluctant readers just finished his second book. He read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and just finished a Derek Jeter biography. He admitted at the beginning of the year that he really dislikes reading unless it’s a sports article or is on Twitter.  But now he’s read two full books of his own choosing.

I suppose partly it could be that teenagers will often listen to anyone except their parents. Perhaps my students’ parents tried to get them to read more and weren’t successful. I’m just not sure how to help my own daughter discover a love of reading, even after I’ve helped so many of my students discover the magic of books. What am I doing wrong?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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I Voted

Steve and Dana Voted
My husband and I leaving the polls

On this date in 1692, Tituba, a slave owned by Reverend Samuel Parris in Salem, Massachusetts, broke down and confessed to bewitching several children who were suffering from mysterious ailments. She was one of the first three women accused of witchcraft in Salem, and by the end of 1692, the other two women would be dead and Tituba would be languishing in a jail cell until some unrecorded person paid her jail fees and took her away from Salem, after which she disappears from the historical record.

My students are currently reading Arthur Miller’s fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible. Though this drama is frequently taught in schools, it’s not exactly my favorite play. It’s a little heavy-handed, and Miller’s frequent interruptions early in the text don’t allow readers to form their own opinions of the characters (those passages could all be in a historical note at the end, I think). However, students do tend to respond to the play for a lot of reasons, one of which is that witch hunts are very much a part of our society even today.

It is a fascinating time in our nation’s history. Certainly we would like to think that we have evolved beyond accusing our neighbors of being witches. How preposterous! As we study the play, I ask my students to engage in an online scavenger hunt to learn more about the historical trials and about similar events in history. I asked my students what they found interesting, and invariably one of them mentions the fact that the witch trials were so similar to other events in history in which entire groups of people were cast under suspicion, sometimes tried and convicted, and sometimes even murdered—the Red Scare, the Holocaust, the Japanese Internment Camps.

I voted today because our country is in danger of engaging in another witch hunt. We have a presidential candidate who suggests that we prevent Muslims from entering the country until “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” And I think of my students sitting in my classroom. Some of them are Muslim. I think of Ahmed, who sat in my classroom last year. One of the gentlest, humblest, most unassuming people I have ever known, Ahmed was briefly jailed in Djibouti when he traveled there to get his visa to attend school in America because of a case of mistaken identity—he is Somali, and when police officers heard his accent as he spoke with his friend, they arrested him because another Somalian was suspected of engineering a car bombing in the city that day. Ahmed is one of the hardest-working, most earnest, kindest students I’ve ever taught. But because he is Muslim, there are people in our country who would prefer at best that he not enter the country and at worst that he didn’t exist. And they don’t even know him.

People have always probably feared “the other” and what they don’t understand in life. The danger in holding fast to that mindset, however, is that we not only miss out on some amazing people but also that we do great harm. I voted because I do not want a man who doesn’t even know my students, who can’t understand how wonderful and amazing they are, and who scares me to death to become president. If I had Donald Trump in front of me, I might just make him read The Crucible. Sadly, I think he’d miss the point.

I don’t typically write about politics, but I vote. I teach students about the ways in which our literature is both a window and a mirror, and I encourage them to vote, too. One of the reasons I teach is that I think my students can change the world, and I want them to be armed with the understanding, knowledge, and insight they need to do it. I don’t want them to go into the polls ignorant about who and what they are voting for.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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Slice of Life March Challenge

blog photo

During the month of March, I will be participating in the Slice of Life Challenge. If you have been reading for a little while, you may have noticed that I try to participate in the Tuesday Slice of Life Challenge, which involves writing a post on Tuesdays. The March Challenge kicks it up a notch. Instead of writing on Tuesdays only, the goal is to write every day. I am not sure if I’m up to this, but I want to give it a try and see what happens. In any case, I am not going to beat myself up or pressure myself. Life happens sometimes. However, the goal is to try to post each day. I’ll see you tomorrow for the first post.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March 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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Slice of Life #24: Idea Slam!

idea photo
Photo by Celestine Chua

February is a rough month for teaching. It’s cold and bleak outside (in many places, anyway). Everyone seems to be a bit lethargic and tired. Many schools have started having breaks in February. My children’s school system, for instance, has a week-long winter break in February. Dylan was so excited to go back to school Monday that he woke up at 3:00 A. M. I realize he’s different that way, though.

I decided it was time to have a really fun department meeting that (I hoped) everyone would look forward to, so we are having an idea slam. The goal is for each of us to bring one (or more) ideas/tips/tricks/etc. we use in the classroom to share with the others. I think we will not only learn a lot from each other but also have fun.

I’m still trying to decide which ideas I will bring to the group. I have several in mind. There is absolutely no reason we can’t have another idea slam, though, and we have a dedicated shared folder in Google Drive that we will use to share electronic copies of anything we have. I can also scan anything that is only available in hard copy and put it in the folder later.

Some ideas I’m considering sharing*:

  • Literary 3×3. This is an idea I learned about when I was looking online for ideas to teach Mrs. Dalloway.
  • The Cartoon “Did You Read?” Quiz from the Making Curriculum Pop Ning.
  • Literary analysis bookmarks (an idea stolen from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy). (Page 1, Page 2—example is from Song of Solomon, but could be adapted for any book)
  • One of the literary analysis tools from AP Literature training this summer (besides TPCASTT, as my department knows that one pretty well).
  • Thesis statement Mad Libs (another idea from AP Literature training).

If you have a really stellar idea, I invite you to share in the comments. We can make this post our very own idea slam if you all want to play.

*If I know where the idea came from, I attempted to give credit. In many cases, I don’t know where the idea came from, so I have shared where I learned about it at least.

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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What Harper Lee Means to Me

to kill a mockingbird photo
Photo by Bruna Ferrara;

I wonder if I would be an English teacher if not for To Kill a Mockingbird. I first encountered the film when I was in 6th grade, and my teachers showed it to us as part of a reward—I forget exactly for what. Two years later, I found a paperback copy of the book in my English teacher’s classroom. She used to have one of those spinning book racks like you see sometimes in the library or in some bookstores. I took the book off the rack and probably read the blurbs on the cover. I don’t remember. I do remember opening it up to the first page and reading

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

The passage grabbed me. I turned to see Mrs. Hoy standing next to me, excited look on her face, rocking back and forth on her heels as usual. “Do you want to borrow that book?” She asked me this question a bit too eagerly, and it made me suspicious, so I put the book back and said, “No.”

Actually, I am not totally sure that I put the book on Mrs. Hoy’s rack together with the film I had seen two years before.

Three years later, I was in Mrs. Keener’s American literature class. I was a junior. In all of high school, I can’t recall having liked anything I read for English class up to that point. I don’t actually remember reading anything in English class in tenth grade at all. I remember sitting at my desk doing grammar exercises out of Warriner’s while my teacher sat at hers. It was a miserable class. Until I landed in Mrs. Keener’s class, I hated English class for the most part. I hadn’t really had a good English teacher since middle school. I loved to read, and I loved to write. Something is wrong when a student who loves to read and write can’t enjoy English.

Mrs. Keener assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it might have been the first novel I read in her class. I had moved to Georgia in February, and the class was in the middle of a research paper. I needed to come up with a topic quickly, and I think we read To Kill a Mockingbird after finishing the research paper, but I admit I don’t recall for certain. We were assigned a number of pages to read each night. I remember reading ahead. I remember being well ahead of where I was required to be. Mrs. Keener opened all our classes with journaling and allowed us to read silently in class. For me, these were the best times of the day. I loved her class, and I loved her. In some ways, I think that it started, really, with that book. I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird.

And so, when I entered college, after having entertained the idea of being a French teacher (I always knew I wanted to teach, but what I wanted to teach took me longer to figure out), I wanted to be like Mrs. Keener. I wanted to teach English. The first novel I taught my students in my first year of teaching was To Kill a Mockingbird. The school had no novel sets at all, and when I asked my department chair, she said I could order them. I taught the book many times since.

Nowadays, it has sort of moved down into the middle school, and I think it is probably fine for middle schoolers. Many of my current students read it in middle school and remember it fondly. When we were talking today about Harper Lee’s death, I shared with them how much I disliked English class until Mrs. Keener and this book. In so many ways, I have Mrs. Keener to thank for the fact that I am an English teacher. We have remained friends since I graduated, and she was my own department chair for a while. I owe her a real debt of gratitude because she has always advocated for me and supported me. I know I owe many of my teaching jobs to her recommendation. She was the one who finally put that book in my hand and made me love English class, and I always think of her whenever I read or teach anything she taught me in high school. I wonder sometimes if I don’t also owe Harper Lee a debt of gratitude  because as much as I wanted to be Mrs. Keener, I also wanted to put books like that in the hands of my students, and maybe they could feel the way I felt when I read it. Watching kids fall in love with a book is one of the best things about my job. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen in love with To Kill a Mockingbird, I wouldn’t be who I am right now.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee, and thank you.

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Slice of Life #23: He Said

reading photo
Photo by katerha

This week’s Slice of Life is in the form of a poem.

At the beginning of the year, he said,
I never read for fun
unless it is a sports article
or something on Twitter.
A lot of times the books we have to read
are very boring and it’s like
torture to read it for me,
but if the school or a teacher assigns
an interesting book
(they never do)
then I don’t mind reading.

The first book he chose
Wasn’t grabbing him, and I told him
to pick a new one.
He said, I can do that?
He picked Into the Wild
and it was good.

Today he was reading a
Derek Jeter biography before
class even started.
He didn’t put it down, even
while I was giving a book talk.
He said,
maybe not out loud
(but loud enough),
I like reading
now that I have figured out what
I like to read.

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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Slice of Life #22: Hello to my Students

hello photo
Photo by Franck Mahon

During a discussion with students today over Robin Bates’s wonderful blog Better Living Through Beowulf, and its potential for ideas for their papers, a student asked me, “Don’t you have a blog?” I said, “Yes, I do,” and the students were curious. I told them where they could find it.

In the early days of the edublogosphere, educators often blogged under pseudonyms or were discouraged from blogging at all. Many feared retribution over what they might post, and at that stage, blogging was considered a bit edgy. I have been blogging here for ten years now (eleven in June), and I can’t think of anything I would write here that I would be nervous about administrators, work colleagues, students, or parents reading. In fact, I invite it. I want the people I work with, the students I teach, and their parents to know I think a great deal about teaching, and blogging is a big part of that reflective practice. Blogging about my teaching has made such an immeasurable difference in my teaching career that it’s hard to say what kind of teacher I would be if I hadn’t started blogging. It was through encouragement on this blog that I tried just about every initiative in teaching, and each of the initiatives that has worked has made my practice that much better. In fact, I am not completely sure that I would still be teaching if not for the support and reflection this blog has offered me. When I began teaching at a school where that support and reflection was built into the expectations and culture (in comparison with other places I’ve worked), I admit I slacked off on posting, but I have yet to find any ongoing PD that has been as beneficial to me as blogging about what I am doing in the classroom.

Even though I have improved my teaching practice over time, and this blog reflects that improvement (I find in reading older posts that my positions have shifted quite a lot in some areas), I am proud that my colleagues read my blog (and sometimes leave comments) and if my students were to find it interesting that I reflect on ways I can be a better teacher out here, then they are welcome to visit. (And hello!)

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 Check-up

My Growing Shelves
My Growing Shelves

I promised I’d post updates about how the independent reading experiment is going. My students have been selecting their own books, whatever they want to read, and completing a weekly reading log that essentially consists of the following:

  1. Did you read for two hours this week? (If no, explain.)
  2. How many pages did you read this week?
  3. What is your current reading goal?
  4. Did you meet your reading goal?
  5. What book are you currently reading?
  6. What page are you currently on?
  7. Did you finish any books this week (if yes, there is an additional update form to complete)?
  8. Is there anything you want to tell me/ask me in regards to your reading this week?

As long as students read for two hours, I am not too fussed that they are meeting the goals. The goals are more for them than for me—the goal helps them figure out how much to read. Many of my students are still experimenting here, and by and large, I think they are being honest. They are telling me if they didn’t meet their goals and why and often the issue is that they overestimated how much they could read in two hours and need to “recalibrate” their reading speed.

Once they finish a book, they complete a form that allows them to share a quick review (basically a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs in the middle) and also allows me to spot check how many books they’re reading. Reading a big stack is not the goal. Reading period is the goal. Still, here are some stats.

I have 25 students across two sections of American Studies in Literature. One of my students left at the end of the semester, and she had read one book, so perhaps it would be fairer to count 26 students. One student has read six books since early December. Good for her! By and large, the students are enjoying the books (lots of thumbs up ratings). My students have read a total of 39 books. Of the 26 students, 22 have completed at least one book, nine have read two or more books, and three have read three or more books.

In the space where I allow students to share a comment or question about reading, one student has been recommending the completed Sherlock Holmes to me (though he also says I have probably read it already, and he is right—I have). If you haven’t seen one of those collections, they are pretty fat books, and he’s been hauling it to school each day to read. I like it that the students are not afraid of big books or hard books. One of my ELL students is reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. Another student who was somewhat withdrawn has begun to come out of her shell a bit. She’s read two books. Independent reading has been a way for her to explore her passion for basketball in an academic setting.

I have been mixing up my book talks with a selection of YA fiction, adult fiction, and nonfiction. Books that are popular in my class (in that more than one student has read or expressed an interest in reading them): Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, and Crossover by Kwame Alexander.

Understanding that reading conferences have value, I have opted not to really do any during our reading time. I do check in with students and help them find books and ask them about the books, but not during that ten minutes. During that time, I’ve been reading with them. I think they actually like that.

This week, my Sherlock Holmes fan wrote in his reading log:

This is not about my reading. This is going to be about what you read and share with us. The form we filled out a few weeks back I forgot to mention a few things. I appreciate what you do in class every day. When you share books and papers with us and read them out loud I can feel that you really do care. I also admire you for sharing these pieces with us because I see they are special to you. You get very excited reading the work and this make me focus and want to learn more about it. Its teachers like you that make coming to school more enjoyable so thank you for all your hard work.

It does not get better than that. So far, I’m calling the independent reading a win, and the only thing I am unhappy about is how long it took me to figure out how to do it in my classes.

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I Don’t Do That Anymore

history photo
Photo by Phil Roeder

One result of keeping a blog for over ten years is that I have a record of a lot of the things I’ve tried in my classroom over the last ten years, including some of my earliest forays into using backward design in curriculum planning and assessing understanding with Socratic seminars (first ever mention was in my first year blogging; also see this older entry). I still plan using backward design, though I’ve learned that for me, the most important parts of the process are creating the essential questions using the UbD filter. On the other hand, I also have a long record of things I’ve abandoned. Not all of them are bad ideas or didn’t work, but for one reason and another, I no longer found them as useful or as big a priority. In some cases, people find these old posts, typically not regular readers of this blog, and occasionally I’m asked questions about how one thing or another is working out for me.

Case in point? Interactive notebooks. I was really excited about them when I first heard about them. I think they are great in theory, but the problem I had was time to assess what students were doing in the notebooks coupled with frustration that students weren’t really using them to learn as I had hoped. So I gave up on them. As much as I like the idea of them, I found them a bit too unwieldy to manage in practice and my students weren’t deriving enough benefit out of them to make them worth the work for me. Perhaps it was a failing of implementation. If you are using them, and they are working for you, I’d love to hear how you’re making them work.

Another experiment I couldn’t make work for me was Collins Writing. While I get that students work on certain issues as they go and eventually will cover a lot of ground, I never found it feasible to give feedback only a few things. I wonder if Collins Writing is something that might work better for teachers at the elementary and middle school levels than it worked for me.

I don’t really use wikis with my students very much anymore, nor do I keep a classroom site or blog anymore. The biggest reason for this is that the school where I’ve worked the last four years has had a learning management system that will allow for online discussions and posting of assignments. In the past I have tried wikis, blogs, and Nings. The one thing I do need to figure out is publication. Students should share their work. Students in the eighth grade at Worcester Academy each have their own blogs, and I think it’s fabulous. It seems somewhat pointless, however, to duplicate information or assignments from the learning management system to some outside site, especially when my students’ other teachers are all using our learning management system. I would just be making things more difficult for the students. In any case, learning management systems, though they are often closed to outsiders, do allow for easy online extensions of learning.

I’m always surprised at the traction some of my older posts still get. In some cases, I stand by what I wrote way back when, but in others, I have changed my mind about things. It wouldn’t be honest to take those posts down because they do reflect my thoughts and feelings at a different time. If things I wrote years ago are still useful, I’m glad. Today, for instance, here’s a snapshot of the statistics for the most frequently accessed posts on my blog:

Statistics 1/23/2016

Some of these posts are old. Taking the home page or archives out of the equation, the most accessed page today was written in 2008. I still think it’s useful because it should give students an idea of how to understand money in Jane Austen’s books. The next most frequently accessed post was written in 2007. In fact, the most recent post in this list is the one entitled “American Literature: How I Threw Out the Chronology and Embraced the Themes,” which was written last March. The post “What Makes a Good Technology Integration Specialist” is often tweeted or otherwise passed around, but I’m not even a technology integration specialist anymore (I still stand by what I said, though). I wrote it in April 2012 when I was seeking a job in that field, and I considered it something of a manifesto as well as, I hoped, something that would attract a potential employer.

It’s occasionally interesting for me to look over old posts and see how well they hold up (or cringe). I suppose one caveat we should all keep in mind when using anything we find on the web, my posts included, is the freshness date. Some classics never go out of style, but I guess as to the rest, I have to shrug and say, “I don’t do that anymore.”

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Teaching with This American Life

This American Life
Image via WVTF

For the past two years that I have been teaching American Literature, I have integrated This American Life into my students’ learning. I have previously used episodes, particularly “Act V,” which tells the story of Prison Performing Arts and Shakespeare in prison. It remains my favorite episode of This American Life to this day.

The essential questions I use in this course are as follows:

  • What is an American?
  • What is the American dream and how has it influenced America?
  • How does American literature reflect America and Americans? What makes it uniquely “American”?
  • What makes an effective writer?

There is a storytelling component as well; the culminating assignment is a digital story. Perhaps not everyone would immediately think of This American Life as American literature, but it is. It is one of the finest collections of stories by and about Americans.

I ask my students to select an episode, any episode, and listen to it.  We do this assignment once a month. This American Life is an hour long, and many of my students are English language learners; I am aware that asking them to listen to more than one episode a month would be difficult for many of my students, both in terms of time and in terms of challenge. After they listen, they can select one of the following prompts and write:

  • Why do you think the producers of This American Life have chosen to follow a particular theme at the point in time when the episode aired? What might have been happening contextually (at the time the show was produced) that gave rise to the selection of that particular topic? Furthermore, were such subjects relevant in the past? If so, how?
  • How has the particular production value (tone, music, interview editing, etc.) contributed to the success or failure of the show? Specifically, what aspects of the sound design affected the way a listener might respond?
  • Connect the episode to something we have learned about and/or discussed in class. Thoroughly explain the connection. In what ways is the episode similar to what we’ve learned? What made you think of topic? Did you seek the episode because you thought there might be a connection to class?

If students want to write on something else, they need to clear it with me first. The first prompt asks students to consider what is going on in the country and world around them. The second asks students to think about these aspects of production, which will help them when it comes time to create their digital stories. The third asks them to connect the episode to what we are learning in class.

I always enjoy reading the students’ writing about This American Life. At first, many students are not sure they will like this assignment, but at the end of last year, several students reported liking it very much. One student remarked in his writing that he thought all his classmates should listen to an episode he had chosen, even if they didn’t do it for credit. That particular student was not the most engaged or hardest working student, either, so I think he genuinely meant it. A comment like that is how I knew I was doing the right thing. Often last year, students would come into class the day a This American Life assignment was due talking animatedly about the episode they had listened to.

I think my students derive many benefits from listening to the stories. On one level, they get a feel for pacing of stories and how ordinary stories can grab us (as well as a sense that all of us have stories). On another level, I think they make many connections and enhance their understanding of America and America’s stories in a way that would be hard to do otherwise. It’s also another mode of reading, and listening is a valuable skill for students to practice.

 

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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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