Tag Archives: reading

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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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 #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 2014 Recap

Audience at B.24
Audience at B.24. Photo by Lisa Iaccarino

NCTE is over. My brain is full. I have a few major takeaways:

  1. My students are not given nearly enough opportunities for independent reading. As in none, really. I am not going to go so far as to flagellate myself for malpractice, but I definitely need to bring in opportunities for students to select what they read. There is a good balance I can strike with required reading and self-selected reading.
  2. My classroom library needs an overhaul. I have two bookshelves (inherited) in my classroom. One is broken. The other is leaning precariously against classroom heating system. Both of them need to go. I want my students to be able to peruse the shelves. Seeing a picture of Penny Kittle’s classroom library gave me serious shelf envy. My husband and I talked about it, and he would be thrilled if I would get some of our books out of the house and into my classroom. I really just need to get some shelves and fill them.
  3. I missed YA fiction. I haven’t read any in a while, and one aspect of NCTE that I have always enjoyed is the access to titles and conversations about YA literature. I had Eleanor & Park on my Kindle, and I hadn’t read it yet. I started reading it last night, and I didn’t stop until I was done. I found John Green’s quote particularly compelling: “Eleanor & Park reminded me not just what it’s like to be young and in love with a girl, but also what it’s like to be young and in love with a book.” You know what book I keep thinking about now that I’ve finished Eleanor & Park? Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes. I fell in love with that book hard. I wore out my copy. I still remember the cover.

Tiger EyesMore soon. Still decompressing.

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Falling in Love with Close Reading: Chapters 1 and 2

I apologize for not getting this first post up sooner. I have been having some problems with my blog. I just installed a plugin that I hope will help prevent some of the slowness and page load issues you might have noticed. However, I used a similar plugin some years ago, and it totally messed up my blog, so if you notice something technically amiss, please let me know. On to the discussion of  Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life.

In chapter one, Lehman and Roberts discuss New Criticism, suggesting that close reading really emerged for the first time as a means of “trying to tune out everything else while looking at the style, words, meter, structure, and so on, of a piece of writing” (2). They go on to discuss the other styles of literary critique that emerged either at the same time as or after New Criticism. It reminds me of something very interesting Jasper Fforde once said at a reading. Jasper Fforde is, if you haven’t heard of him, the writer of the popular Thursday Next series, and honestly, if you are a book nerd of any stripe, you should check out those books—especially the first few. Anyway, this was right after his dystopian novel Shades of Grey came out (not to be confused with the 50 shades variety). In this novel, people can only see one color, so they stratify society based on what color they can see. People who can see only grey are at the bottom. One person at the reading asked Fforde if he was trying to make a comment about racism with the novel. He said truthfully that he hadn’t thought about it, but then he went on to describe reading as a highly creative act. He added that a book only belongs to an author as long as he/she hasn’t shown it to anyone. After that, it belongs to the reader, too, and the reader brings everything he/she has read, experienced, or thought to bear on that book as well. It’s one of my favorite things anyone has ever said. I think it’s true that two people can read entirely different books. In fact, one person can read an entirely different book—I have read books at different times in my life and had very different reactions to them.

Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent, but I feel strongly that we can’t cut the reader out of equation. The reader is possibly more important to me than the author’s life (though I do find I discuss biography more with students when it seems more obvious to me that the author’s life impacted the work in some significant ways).

Lehman and Roberts go on to discuss the place of close reading in the CCSS. I think the bottom of page 3 is the first time I’ve ever seen a tweet cited! It’s interesting to think about the ways in which social media will impact the way we write and what we write about.

One thing I do like about this book is the cutaway figures that pull out the essentials: the definition of close reading on p. 4, the central tenets of close reading instruction on p. 5, and so on. It is helpful to have the big ideas emphasized.

Lehman and Roberts describe the structure they advocate for teaching close reading as a sort of “ritual,” and I like that thinking (7). The ritual involves

  1. Reading through lenses.
  2. Finding patterns.
  3. Using the patterns to understand the text.

When I taught Things Fall Apart for the first time, I feared my students would have a lot of trouble relating to Okonkwo and would probably dislike him quite a great deal. I don’t like him, truth be told, but I am able to sympathize with his plight. Achebe lays that foundation to help us see as readers where Okonkwo’s failings come from. But teenagers are much more critical and have a more difficult time with the other person’s point of view. So I decided that perhaps the way we should read the novel is in a detached way. We took on the role of anthropologists, studying the Ibo (Igbo), and we each picked a lens that interested us: gender, religion, farming, etc. We paid attention to what we could learn about the culture’s beliefs through our chosen lens. I think the students found the book more interesting, and they were able to think perhaps a bit more like scientists.

You know, you don’t have to like the protagonist to like a book. It took me a while to figure that out, as I think it takes most readers a while to figure it out. I love Lolita, for instance, and Wuthering Heights, but I hate the protagonists in those books. I think often times, teenagers have difficulty with books that have antiheroes or unlikeable protagonists because they really want to like and to root for the protagonist. But teaching students to read through lenses and to get at what a character wants and thinks, and what motivates a character, really helps students go beyond a simple gut connection with the lead character.

Chapter 2 of the book takes the reader through the process of the ritual Lehman and Roberts mention in chapter 1. I was struck by how similar the process for close reading is to “close looking.” I recently took an Art and Inquiry course through MoMA online with Coursera (great course), and one of the techniques for encouraging inquiry is to ask students what they notice and keep probing. The MoMA does this with student visitors. Questioning students about what they notice is akin to the strategy Lehman and Roberts describe as gathering evidence and then developing an idea (12).

Sprinkled throughout the book are QR codes linked to websites and other media mentioned in the text. Scanning a QR code leaves less margin for error than trying to type in a URL, and I rather like the idea that the book feels more dynamic. Obviously, the changing nature of the web will mean that down the road, the codes might not direct to the right link anymore, but it’s a good idea until we figure out how to put dynamic links in a static book.

I’m not sure I’d have chosen the same song to introduce students to close reading (see page 14), but that’s just me. I might not do a song at all. No reason not to do a poem. I assume the song choice was an attempt to connect to the students using music they like, but my experience is that Justin Bieber is a polarizing figure, and aside from that, I mean, the lyrics are not poetry (not that Lehman and Roberts are trying to convince us that they are poetry—just using them as a vehicle for teaching their close reading approach). In fact, they go on to say that choosing a less challenging text when teaching this ritual is helpful because of the confidence it gives students. It also helps the teachers pinpoint which close reading skills students are struggling with (as opposed to struggling with comprehension). I can get behind that logic.

Lehman and Roberts then include a model for the instruction of the ritual on pp. 17-24. I found the model helpful as it drilled down to each part of the close reading ritual to show what teaching it to students could look like. Then, on pp. 25-27, Lehman and Roberts apply the model to informational texts. I found this model helpful, as many books on teaching reading skimp on informational reading.

Lehman and Roberts advise teachers to “plan to pay careful attention to what [the students] produce when working independently” (27). They provide a helpful chart for revising our thinking about a reading and additional tools for providing extra support to students—using conversation (small group discussion) to evaluate evidence, ranking evidence in terms of which details best support students’ thinking, and teaching students when to close read for evidence (29). In addition, and also helpful, is a list of tools for challenging more advanced students: expanding lenses, seeking out contrasting patterns, and using analytical lenses (29).

The chapter closes with a discussion of close reading details in our lives, which I found helpful in thinking about the digital storytelling project I’d like to do with my juniors this year. I scanned the QR code on p. 31 and found it linked to a StoryCorps recording that would be perfect to share with my students as they create their digital stories. I hadn’t thought about doing close readings of the models I might provide for students preparing to create digital stories, but it makes perfect sense.

Please share your thoughts about the chapters in the comments below. Let’s discuss!

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Falling in Love with Close Reading: First Discussion

I apologize for dragging my feet starting our study of Lehman and Roberts’s  Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts—and Life.

I propose that we read the first two chapters this week and gather here to discuss them next Sunday, August 3. I know we’re butting up into the beginning of school for some folks. I just had a really hectic July, and I wasn’t able to get us started. I’m all set now. Let’s go!

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B is for Books

443545349_fee917a0ca1As teachers of English, one of our goals is that students will become lifelong readers. We hope they will understand that reading is a great tool for understanding the world around us. In the words of Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” We read articles like this one at The Washington Post, and we’re frightened about the future, which is starting to look more and more like this:

Photo by Will Lion
Photo by Will Lion

We are concerned about the state of reading in the world, and we long to foster a lifelong love of reading in our students. But how to do it?

I am afraid that so much of what we do in our English language arts classes kills the desire to read that most students seem to have when they first learn to read in elementary school. I don’t have all the solutions, and I am sure I’ve been a part of the problem at times (for various reasons), but here are some issues I often see:

  • Students don’t read for pleasure. They read what is required (if they read that).
  • Students have no choices about what they read. The most common form of reading seems to be the whole-class literature study (more on that in a minute).
  • Everything students read is assessed. They are accountable for every page.
  • Schools and teachers cram the curriculum with as many texts as possible rather than go deep with fewer texts.
  • The whole-class literature study often focuses on literature that students do not like and have difficulty relating to.
  • Some teachers have trouble helping students find the literature selections relevant to themselves and their world.
  • We don’t allow students to express their opinions about the books (and they should be taught to back those opinions up with textual evidence), so they learn to feel weird if they don’t like the characters or stories.
  • If it’s fun, and they would choose to read it on their own, it tends not to be something we’d consider for classroom reading, and we wind up teaching students that reading is something that is supposed to be hard work instead of hard (or not hard) fun.
  • We tell them what to read over the summer and don’t allow them choices about how to spend their reading “free” time, either.

I don’t know what you remember about elementary school reading, but I remember we were allowed to pick a lot of the books we read. We had a lot of choices. I used to pick audio books about dinosaurs. I listened to them all the time. I liked the audio books because they taught me how to pronounce the dinosaurs’ difficult names correctly. I do remember sometimes sitting in a circle with the teacher and reading stories out of a basal reader, but I don’t remember hating it. Other students for whom learning to read was difficult might have a different memory, however. I chose books all the time, and teachers read books to us, and I really liked that, too.

Partly, we need to do a good job educating parents. They need to read to their children, and they need to model enjoyment of reading for their children. We need to continue to allow students to make choices about their reading as they go through middle and high school. Are they going to choose to read YA fiction? Yes, some of them will. We need to stop thinking of that as some kind of crime. One of the things I detest in some adults is book snobbery. Some adults I know actually look down their noses at readers who like to read genre fiction or comic books. I mean, we all know real readers read Lit-ra-chure (you have to read that word in your poshest, snobbiest accent). I have never met a K-12 student who is a book snob.

I give reading quizzes all the time, but I stopped giving tests some years ago. I don’t find testing students on the details of their reading comprehension after we’ve done a unit to be all that helpful. I use quizzes mainly to make sure students do read, but the questions tend to be open-ended questions about the connections they make and their opinions. I don’t hold them accountable for every page. Do students sometimes not do their reading for my class? Probably. As a result, they don’t have the opportunity to engage in the discussion, and they missed out on a good book. Too bad for them. A student’s education belongs to that student, and they have to be responsible to themselves for choosing not to engage.

Alternative assessments are also fun. One of my favorites is a Cartoon “Did You Read” Quiz (you might need to join the Making Curriculum Pop Ning to see it, but it’s worth it—great Ning). Or why not use quizzes as a chance to engage with the text and characters: “What did you think about the way Okonwo treated Nwoye?” or “Which character do you like best so far and why?” Give students more opportunities to wrestle with the text through Socratic seminar discussions. I just did a Socratic seminar over the first seven chapters of Things Fall Apart this week, and it was amazing. You should have heard the kids speak. Did they read it? Most of them did, and they were quite articulate about what they read. A couple of students missed out. I feel bad for them. It was a really interesting discussion, and they were left out.

Cramming as many texts into a curriculum as we can is meant, I think, to look like rigor, but what winds up happening is that we cover a book more superficially rather than having deep and engaging discussions and writing reflectively about the reading. I don’t agree that we are doing students a favor by “exposing” them to a large number of texts when they can’t delve deeply. If they engage deeply with a fewer number of texts, they will develop a fondness for reading that will lead them to more reading. It would be interesting to do a study some time, but it’s hard because you’d need to have a control group. I’m not volunteering my students, and I can’t think of teachers who would (at least, not intentionally). And so what if they never read Nineteen-Eighty-Four? I haven’t. And I’m still alive. (I do plan to read it at some point, though.)

I admit I love the whole-class literature study, and I do it a lot, but why not try to integrate more choice? Why not literature circles? Why not allow students to pick three Poe stories to read instead of assigning the same ones to each student? Why not allow them to find poems to bring to class to discuss? I think students do benefit from discussing a book with a whole class, but we should think about which selections we teach. The intended audience for many of the novels we teach tends to skew older than our students. I happen to love The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome, but I can see why a tenth grade boy might not. On the other hand, I think some teachers can teach these novels, even to teenagers, and make them relevant and interesting. We need to help students make connections to the characters in the literature they read and to understand the ways in which literature mirrors our society.

Students need opportunities to choose what they read so that they will learn what they like to read. If we choose every single text they read, even their summer reading, when do they have an opportunity to figure that out? And if they don’t like what they read in class, isn’t it logical for them to assume they don’t like reading and choose not to do it after they graduate? I think often we discourage thoughtful criticism of books students read, too. I think students should feel free not to like a book and to express those feelings. We need to teach them to articulate their reasons. “Because it sucks” doesn’t fly, but students should feel safe in expressing their opinions. I struggle with this idea sometimes, too, and my students don’t always love the books I wish they loved. It makes me sad when they don’t love those books. There are a lot of books I don’t love, however, that other people really love. I think we have to let go. In the same way we should stop dictating every reading selection, we should also stop dictating how students should feel about the reading selections. And yes, I do think how one feels about a book is important. We become lifelong readers because of how books make us feel.

I don’t have all the answers, but we should be having conversations about this issues.

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How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Thomas C. Foster’s excellent book  How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines elucidates literary analysis like no other text I have read. It clarifies the sometimes difficult task of interpretation and making meaning. It has an excellent recommended reading list, and it is indispensable for English teachers. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t enjoy its “sequel,” How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form nearly as much.

Let’s start with what I liked:

  • The motif, which runs throughout the book, of the reader as creator. Reading is a creative act. Books demand that we have an imagination. It reminds me very much of something I heard Jasper Fforde say about reading when I went to a book signing. Foster says, “readers are the ultimate arbiters of meaning in a work” (126). I agree with him, and it’s one of the things that can be difficult about teaching English. English teachers are often experienced readers who understand the ways in which texts talk to one another and speak the language of symbolism and metaphor. Students, who are less experienced, often become infuriated when a teacher makes a connection or interpretation that the student didn’t make, and English teachers are often wrongly accused of inventing intentions the author never had. The author’s intentions do not matter once the reader reads the books. We readers bring so much experience, prior reading, belief, opinion, and knowledge to everything we read, that no two readers read the same book, and no reader reads the same book the author wrote. I really like it that Foster explained the importance of the reader so clearly because it is a real issue whenever two readers disagree about a book.
  • I like Foster’s breakdown of 18 things we can tell about a book on the first page. It is a great guide for students who struggle with annotation. If you can point students to look for style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place, motif, theme, irony, rhythm, pace, expectations, character, and instructions on how to read the novel (whew!), then you will have paved the way for them to better understand the novel and help them figure out what to look for when they read. Eighteen is a bit much, but I found as I scanned the list that I agreed that most, if not all, of these elements can be determined to some degree on the first page of the novel.
  • I am fond of telling students that literature is the mirror that we hold up to examine our world and to ourselves. It tells us who we are and what we want. Foster expresses a similar sentiment: “So almost any novel can teach us, and the novel has one big lesson that lies at its very root: we matter. A human life has value not because it belongs to an owner, a ruler, a collective, or a political party, but because it exists as itself” (115). As such, characters in novels matter because they are us. We see ourselves in them. We see our humanity in their humanity.

Now to what I didn’t like:

  • The book is repetitive. Foster discusses the same books, pretty much over and over, and if, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with one of his pet texts or if you didn’t like it for some reason, it’s hard to connect to what Foster is saying—or it was for me. Your mileage may vary. I don’t much like Joyce. There, I said it. I did give him a try. I guess I prefer my novels to be more like the great Victorian novels Foster describes. I am not opposed to Postmodernism here or there, and I don’t have to travel with the characters in a straight line. But Joyce doesn’t do it for me. I like it that Foster acknowledges we have different reactions to novels. Towards the end of the book, he describes a discussion with a high school English class in which one lone dissenter admitted he didn’t like Great Expectations. Of this student, Foster says, “It takes courage, to say you’re in AP English and aren’t wild about one of the established classics. For one thing, there’s the weight of more than a century of received opinion going against you” (292-293). Yes. True. I do not like Ulysses. I tried to read it. I was grossed out on page one. I gave it up. And that is OK, though the “weight of [nearly] a century of received opinion” is going against me. But he’s a favorite of Foster’s (not surprising, as he seems to be a favorite of many college profs), and he is used as an example over and over and over. And since I didn’t grok Ulysses, I didn’t find myself connecting to those examples very well.
  • I think Foster’s definition of theme is off, and I wouldn’t recommend sharing it verbatim with students. Foster defines it as “the idea content of the novel” (30). When I teach it, I tend to take it further than that. What message did you get from the novel? Deeper than what it is about—why did the author write it? We can’t know that, of course, but we can extrapolate. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald write The Great Gatsby because he wanted to comment on how the American Dream is not achievable by all, and maybe that it is even dead or never existed in the first place? I don’t know, but that is a message I receive from it when I read it. Certainly different readers will see different themes. But I don’t find the definition “idea content” to be all that helpful.
  • Likewise, Foster describes different kinds of narration on pp. 46-47. I teach students first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. I mention second person as a type of narration they will rarely encounter. That’s it. And I discovered that there are these other types called third person objective, first person central, and first person secondary, which, as Foster describes them, seem like splitting hairs unnecessarily. He also puts stream of consciousness in there, which is not a type of narration, but a narrative technique. And he even says it’s not a kind of narrator, so I find it confusing that he puts it in this list at all. It doesn’t belong there.
  • The book has no index. How to Read Literature Like a Professor has a great index. It made finding information so much easier.
  • The book doesn’t have a recommended reading list. There is a list of other literary criticism to read, but in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster shared a list of great literary works to read. I liked it. I suppose he figured the list of all the novels he mentioned in the book should do, but I liked the list in the other book.
  • Foster’s appeal lies to a great degree in his entertaining style. He cracks jokes. He’s snarky. For some reason, it was fun in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In How to Read Novels like a Professor, I found it less appealing, and occasionally off-putting.

This book is worth it for the discussion of reading as a creative act and intertextuality, but aside from that, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t captured better in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I highly recommend that book, and I would recommend it far above How to Read Novels Like a Professor.

This review is cross-posted from my book blog because I thought it might appeal to English teachers.

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An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger, Chapter 4 and Afterword

An Ethic of ExcellenceIn the final chapter of An Ethic of Excellence, Ron Berger addresses the need to support teachers. This chapter in particular is one I think administrators should read. I wish those in business and educational bureaucracy would read it and let it sink it and really reflect on it as well.

Berger points out that teachers do not go into teaching because it’s lucrative. All the bonuses, merit pay, and monetary incentives in the world will not really attract quality teachers in the same way that supporting teachers will. Berger cites the oft-quoted statistic that “[a]lmost half of all America’s teachers leave the profession within five years” (121). I was almost among their number. After my fourth year, I was overwhelmed. There was no support for me. I was burnt out. I had no time to plan or grade, not the time I needed anyway. I was isolated in my own building despite the fact that I was teaching in my former high school and counted among my colleagues some of my own former teachers. I decided maybe I just wasn’t any good at this teaching thing, and perhaps I ought to just pack it in and go into public relations or something. I had some writing skills.

I was out of the teaching profession for about five months before I came back. I taught preschool because it was what I could find in November. The one thing you don’t hear about going into teaching is that jobs are not just going to fall into your lap. People figure everyone needs teachers, so finding a teaching job is easy. Another lie I was told in undergrad was that so many teachers would be retiring in the early 2000’s that they would leave huge gaps, and there would not be enough teachers to fill them all, so we’d have our pick.

At any rate, the entire time I was in public education, I was not given the respect, resources, time, or support needed to do my job effectively, and I would venture to guess that is the case in many (if not most) public school situations. Many people naively assume that private schools have tons of resources. My own experience is that time, resources, respect, and support vary in private schools as well.

I think it starts with what Berger calls “visionary administrators” (121). If you do not have a school with a strong, visionary administration that advocates for and supports its teachers, that doesn’t give its teachers the time, respect, and resources needed to teach well, then it is going to be an uphill battle to stay enthusiastic about your teaching job or even to stay in the profession.

This support needs to go deeper than lip service, too. I have had an administrator that I will call John who swore up and down that he supported his teachers, but in reality, he micromanaged them, didn’t trust them, and was rather quick to throw them under the bus. He was responsible for a toxic work environment. There was no recourse for teachers who worked with him. He was a bully. He did not have what Berger calls the “courage” to trust his teachers, and his teachers didn’t have the tools they needed to innovate, both in terms of actual resources and professional development. Teachers were not involved in “decision making in genuine and significant ways” (150). They were consulted, and if their thoughts did not align with his, he discarded them. If a teacher did have an innovative idea, often John’s way of discouraging it was to send the teacher on a fruitless research and report assignment to prove it would be effective, and no matter what the results of the report were, John would discard the idea if it didn’t align with what John wanted to do. After I while, I stopped bothering to offer my opinion. It was easier to agree with John and do things his way because my opinions would not be seriously considered anyway.

I have learned recently that it’s important to assume people have good intentions. I wish John had assumed that I had good intentions with my students and that I was a teacher because I felt called to teach. I wish he had trusted in my professional expertise. I think that John had good intentions. He wanted a quality education for the students at his school, and he felt very strongly that it had to look a certain way, and his micromanaging of classrooms was intended to ensure teachers were doing what he felt was best.

I think the education bureaucrats and business people involved in making major changes to our educational system have good intentions. They see students who fall through the cracks. They see teachers who aren’t good teachers. They want opportunities for all students. But the way they are going about it is not going to reap the results they are after any more than the way John went about administrating his school achieved the results he was after.

And just like Ron Berger, I don’t have an answer. There is not a magic bullet that would fix all the ills in education. If there were, I wouldn’t be blabbing here on my blog. I’d be writing up the discovery and ensuring I could make a mint on it. But I think it does start with a mindset, as Berger has said in this book:

  1. Consideration of the school culture and creation of a positive school culture.
  2. Consideration of student learning.
  3. Consideration of the craft of teaching and respect, time, resources, and support for teachers.

Berger will give you a lot to think about if you are a teacher, particularly with regards to authentic assessment and project-based learning. But I would highly recommend his book also to administrators, education bureaucrats, and everyone else involved in shaping education policy.

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