Book Talks, Choice Reading, and Fast Food Drive-Thrus by Amy Menzel

I can’t put my book down. I’m (finally) reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I am loving it. I book talked it a week ago and I’m 75 or so pages from finishing. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it before! I’ve book talked it before, so I assume I was so engrossed in another title that this one had to wait. Anyway, I’m already anticipating a serious book hangover upon finishing.

As I crawled into bed and turned on my reading light last night, I had two lightbulb moments. In addition to the obvious one, there was the realization that I am not rereading a book for the eleventy-seventh time this year. In fact, I haven’t reread an entire book for the past two years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there may be something misguided about an English teacher focusing all her efforts on teaching the same few books year after year.

I spent nearly the first decade of my high school teaching career doing just that. I could still deliver a solid lesson on To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, or The Kite Runner at a moment’s notice. Give me an hour or so to prep and I could review layers upon layers of annotations in my personal copies of each and make a solid lesson a good one. But I’ve been there and done that. Sure, I found new insight with each reread, but I don’t think enough to warrant the time it took. I’m not convinced my lessons got that much better from year to year, despite my thoughtful (and time-consuming) planning and preparation. And, really, that shouldn’t surprise me.

Writer Haruki Murakami once tweeted, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” And, there I was, only reading the books that I had read, and only thinking what I had thought. I mean, I added related readings to ever-expanding text sets and used new pedagogical practices, but I was basically the academic equivalent of a Taco Bell drive-thru. It was all the same stuff just packaged differently.

That’s no way to live. It’s no way to grow.

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I see my job as an English teacher much differently now than I did as an eager newbie. I’m still eager, alright, but I also have this sense of urgency. Part of it is that I teach seniors now. And second semester Senior English is basically the pressure cooker of secondary education.* I have 90 days to help students identify as readers. Let me tell you, it’s not going to happen with a traditional approach. At best, a traditional approach might convince them that reading is “not that bad” as they grind their way through a couple assigned books (or the SparkNotes of a couple assigned books) that they may or may not find all that engaging. I’m striving for more than that.

I don’t have a lot of time with these young scholars and there’s no time to waste. It’s time they find books that intrigue them, inspire them, and challenge them. It’s time they find books they actually want and will read. And it’s really important that we shift to students finding their own texts. “Real world” readers don’t read because some lady named Mrs. Menzel tells them they should. They read because they find books that speak to them. Of course, I’m here to help. I book talk a new title every single day. I make it my job to play nerdy cupid and match the right title with the right reader. It all takes a lot of time. But not more time. I’ve simply reallocated my time. I don’t spend hours rereading the same books and turning last year’s burritos into this year’s enchiladas. Instead, I read. For real. I read a lot. I read books I want to read and books recommended by librarians and students. I read novels and nonfiction and graphic memoirs and collections of poetry. I read magazine and newspaper articles and blog posts and lyrics and scripts and transcripts. And I share what I read. And I ask students to share what they read. And we talk about it and we write about it.

amy 2my book board, featuring all the title’s I’ve book talked this year so far

And I’m finally living a reading life I want my students to follow.

(And look at them follow!)


*I’m pretty certain this analogy checks out. It sounds good. Truth be told, I’m much more Taco Bell than I am pressure cooker kinda person in the nonliterary, culinary sense.


Amy Menzel finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close nearly seven books ago. She just got around to revising and submitting this guest post because teaching. She knows you understand. You might also understand why she’s contemplating spending $20 on this “SAVE THE WORD TACOS” t-shirt. She hopes you have a great end of year and a fantastic, restful summer filled with great reads.

New Q & A Posts Starting: If you’ve got questions about readers-writers workshop, we may have answers #3TTWorkshop

Yesterday I had a little chat with my five-year-old granddaughter who had just got in Elletrouble with her mom and dad for running away instead of coming when they called her. She’d had a scuffle with her little brother and didn’t want to stop playing long enough to get a talking to. (I can’t say I blame her. No one likes thinking they are in trouble.) After a dose of parental guidance and a tad of time, I knelt beside Elle and asked if we could talk. She melted me.

Elle reminds me of her mother — so full of spunk it could be dangerous. She’s fire and ice and double-dog-daring. She has the memory of a growing elephant, and she asks THE best questions. She’s fearless and inquisitive dolled up in loud and loving chaos.

As I knelt on the pavement in the park yesterday, looking into sparkling brown eyes, I couldn’t help but send a plea:  Please, God, do not let life and school and standardization hurt this highly-spirited mighty wisp of a darling intelligent diva.

I know I share concern with most parents and grandparents. And as teachers, we feel well-deep concern for many of the children we work with every day year after year.

Peanuts tired tomorrow cartoonIt can be emotionally exhausting.

That’s where I was a year ago:  Flat on my back exhausted. Overwhelmed. Overcome. There were several factors that added to my distress. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say this about one last straw:  I’ve become wary of some assistant principals, especially those assigned to evaluate English departments when they have zero literacy experience, — and they do not believe in edu research and data-informed practice. Boy, howdy.

Thus, my gap year, which went by faster than my Elle running from her mother.

Have I missed it? You’d have to define it.

I’ve missed working with teens every day. I have not missed some of their parents. I have not missed the effects of some of their trauma.

I’ve missed working with insightful and forward-thinking colleagues. I have not missed others’ same-old-same-old attitudes or platitudes.

I’ve missed helping writers write and readers read — more — and better. I have not missed trying to break the habits of inauthentic and limiting literacy instruction (only writing to prompts, taking fill-in-the-blank tests, worksheets . . .)

I’ve missed the joy of sharing daily book talks — books I’ve loved, books that gave me pause, books I hope to read, books I-couldn’t-get-into-but-maybe-you-can. I have not missed grades or justifying independent reading without them.

I’ve missed exploring and discussing current events, lyrics, art, poetry, and good books; diving into inquiry, writing from the heart — adolescents have keen insight and so much talent! I have not missed anything test-prep related (test-proctoring included).

I’ve missed my students and the relationships we build around becoming better humans. I have not missed the late work or grading policies that kept me perpetually behind.

I know there’s more — the good, the bad, and the ugly that goes into this profession of teaching. When I first entered the classroom, I had no clue. (I’d bet this is most of the population.)

So what now?

I wish I knew.

Only kidding. Kinda. I know I need to find a job (financially, I don’t know how we’ve made it this far.) I just hope I am better at self care.

I must be better at self care. I must be a better advocate of my practice. For myself and for my students.

So what does this all have to do with my granddaughter?

Elle is every child I’ve ever taught and every child I may ever teach. She’s a handful of opportunity — worth every pinch of sass and poke of attitude — and she needs teachers, especially literacy teachers who give her choice in what she reads and what she may want to write, who talk to her about her needs as reader and as writer, who care more about her as a tiny human than as a data point. Elle needs teachers who feed her inquiry and focus her energy. She needs teachers, equally curious and energetic, who have lives outside of teaching.

Oscar Wilde quote

For the past year, I’ve collected questions teachers have generated at the workshop trainings I’ve facilitated (a gift of part-time consulting work).  I try to answer these questions in the short time we have together, but now I’m thinking I can use these questions here at 3TT, too. I can remind myself of what I love about teaching readers and writers, and perhaps you, dear readers, may benefit, too.

So this is a charge to myself made public — Important since I’ve been awful about keeping my writing commitments and posting regularly, although in the past year I’ve — taught myself to watercolor, read 17 books that are not YA, planted a killer container garden, tried being a vegetarian, binge-watched too much on Netflix, cuddled grandbabies, had a book proposal accepted, and logged miles on my new bike —  Each week I’ll write a Q & A-type post that answers a question about teaching high school readers and writers in a workshop classroom. I used to feel I was pretty good at it.

If you have a question, related to ELAR and/or workshop, please leave it in the comments. I’ll try to spotlight yours.

Questions Answered

Amy Rasmussen has taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit (gen ed, Pre-AP,  G/T, AP Lang) at two (Title I) high schools in N Texas. She’s passionate about self-improvement but knows perfectionism can kill the soul. She’s become vocal about teacher self care and refuses to even think about grading essays on the weekend. She loves her work as a literacy consultant, especially that moment when teachers want to read and write more — just like we hope for all our students. Follow Amy @amyrass

One Pagers as End of Year Reading Reflections

Ending the year should be a ton of fun. Once the standardized testing season is over, it’s not time to let the days drag. It’s time to continue the learning, the fun, and the reflecting. As Angela wrote, it’s important to end the year strong, and on a positive note!

I think one-pagers are a great answer to some of the end-of-year-dilemmas we teachers face.

The possibilities for one-pagers seems to be endless. They are fun, they are hands-on, reflective, and what student doesn’t want to use markers and crayons in the classroom?

I’ve shared some of my experiences with one-pagers before, and I thought I’d share another idea or two here now.

At the end of the first semester, I asked my AP Lang students to reflect on their reading habits and experiences. This was our last assignment of the semester, and it was so fun and positive to grade. What a way to wrap up!

The requirements for the reading reflection one-pager were as follows:

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I modified this assignment from one a colleague shared with me. It originally focused on one book that a student would read for independent reading, so when I modified it into a semester reading reflection for AP Lang, I was unsure, yet hopeful, about how it would turn out.

One of the big differences between doing a one-pager for a book vs a semester reading reflection is the idea of What’s Your Number? I told students they could use any unit of measurement they wanted: pages, hours, books, chapters, inches, pounds, it didn’t matter. It just needed to represent their reading for the semester, as it acknowledges the accomplishments!

I was so happy with the results.

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I plan to ask my AP Lang students to do this again in a couple of weeks, but to focus on either second semester or the entire year, whichever they like.

It’s a positive way to end the year. It’s a celebration of learning and reading and growing, and it puts a smile on all of our faces.

How else have you used one-pagers in your classroom? I’d love to read all about it!

 

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, and the last four in Amman, Jordan. She’s thrilled to report that she and her family moved across the world to Managua, Nicaragua this year, and are loving their new adventure.

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

 

 

Ending the Year Strong (without resorting to movies…)

I’m so tired. Aren’t you tired? I saw this meme today and really, nothing has ever felt more true.

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And we still have miles to go before we sleep…

For this post, I want to share some smart ways that the teachers I work with are ending the year strong, so they and students can stay awake.

StoryCorps

Rachel wanted her students to spend time storytelling before the end of the year. After the crush of testing, she wanted students to be engaged in writing about their own lives. We tried out StoryCorps.

Students brainstormed lists of people to talk to and used the StoryCorps app to generate questions. After they interviewed, they then talked about finding a powerful moment in the interview. Using the StoryCorps videos as their mentor texts, students are immersed in AdobeSpark, making their own videos.

Podcasts

In Emilyn’s (@Pena_WC) sophomore English class, students have just completed a round of book clubs reading novels in verse (read more about these in Julie’s post). They devoured the books and loved talking about them together. As a summative assignment, the folks at Teach Living Poets inspired us to have kids create a podcast modeled after Tracy K. Smith’s podcast “The Slowdown.”

Students chose a poem from their novel in verse, and in their group, they decided how to talk about the poem. Students have been thinking deeply about the poems and the way they exist in the larger text.

Once students publish, classmates will listen and sketchnote (If you want to know more about sketchnoting, check out Tanny McGregor’s book Ink & Ideas).

Your Year In a Book

I work with a wonderful teacher, Tiffany (@tiffwalters), who is always brimming with ideas. The best part of my job is when I get to support her in bringing her ideas to life. One day she came in and told me she was thinking about having her kids write about their sophomore year in the form of a book. But instead of the actual book, she wondered what would happen if they focused on the parts of a book: the Acknowledgments, the Author’s Notes, the dedication.

I was hooked! We gathered books that have those components (Internment by Samira Ahmed is a great mentor!) and Tiffany set them out for students to browse. They made lists of their noticings, and got to work.

Using Book Creator, students are creating books about their year, incorporating the editorial elements, and three original writing pieces that illustrate their year. The students are mining blog posts they’d written this year to revise and shape into reflective pieces.

The students are stretching themselves as writers and thinkers, and it will be amazing.

There are so many ideas like this happening in the schools where I work. In your schools too, I bet. I love how all these teachers are relying on the rhythm of workshop: looking at mentor texts, creating authentic audiences, writing, revising, and growing.

The great thing about these ideas too is that if you’re reading this post and thinking, “oh, I love that idea, but it’s too late in the year to try it,” bookmark this post and come back to it in August. Any of these ideas would be a great way to start the year too.

What are you doing to make the most of the last part of your year?

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She has 10 pages left in Internment by Samira Ahmed and is already missing the Layla. 

A “Quality” Mentor Text

We all know the value of a really effective mentor text: media reviews from A/V Club, The Player’s Tribune for authentic narrative, The Ethicist (credit Penny & Kelly) for opinion or argument, TED Talks (ala Moving Writers) for writing that “speaks” to an audience, Humans of New York for whatever you want it to be. And in a workday that allows little time for “browsing” of any kind, the more adaptable the mentor text, the better.

Shana has written about the use of Ruth Gendler’s Book of Qualities for QuickWrites. I wrote about this mentor text as part of a multi-genre project. (Like most good ideas used in my classroom, this one was bestowed upon me by my teaching partner, Mariana). And we’re using it again with seniors as part of their author study in Advanced Writing. Students are tasked with identifying themes and abstract concepts that feature in their author’s work and personifying one of these in a prose poem after Ruth Gendler’s qualitiescover“Qualities.” This year, I’m also using this mentor text to “assess” independent reading in RWW for sophomores.

First, I give them a copy of the Table of Contents and samples from Gendler’s Book of Qualities and ask them to choose one that connects to their book. Now if I were more efficient (ha!), I would have a copy of each page available, but no. So, that afternoon, I scan the pages necessary for each student to have a hard copy of Gendler’s take on the quality they matched with their own book. In theory, I’ll eventually have all of them scanned and organized in a properly labeled folder, right? Again, ha!

Anyway, the next day or so, they get a copy of Gendler’s prose-poem personification of the quality they identified. Their writing task is to revise Gendler’s piece to make it macbeth's robesspecific to their author’s work. Scaffolding is kind of built in: less confident writers can make more extensive use of Gendler’s structure; stronger writers can even start from scratch. Either way, this task requires VERY explicit modeling, so I model with a quality that links to a text we all read together. This year, the model quality is power, arising out of our film-and-soliloquy study of Macbeth (although I think it would work with any shared text, even a poem or short story or article). Essentially, I build in specific details that are specifically text-related. For example, Macbeth’s power is “dressed in borrowed robes,” at least at first. It doesn’t walk but rather “vaults” across an entire continent with a dagger in its hand. Power’s hands never get clean, so why not just drench them in more blood? Even students who persisted in their claim that they just don’t “get” Shakespeare had their “Aha!” moment in this discussion.

albatrossGendler’s clothing motif in her discussion of power is convenient, as clothing is a motif in the play as well. I just got lucky there. But students are still doing a version of literary analysis of theme and turning to the text for evidence. And it’s way more fun than that albatross of high school English classrooms, the Literary Analysis Essay.

What I love about this mentor text is its adaptability. It would work with any text, and students certainly don’t have to be limited to the “qualities” Gendler explores. They can CHOOSE to invent their own. Depending on how this goes with my sophomores, I might collect them and bind them into a class booklet, our own version of The Book of Qualities. 

Assessing Conferences Part 2: What We Can Learn When Teachers and Students Assess Writing Conferences

Wanting to affirm for myself that conferring really is a strength, wanting to determine ways I could continue growing this strength (that Harvard Business Review article “The Feedback Fallacy” keeps me thinking!!!), I decided to act on one of my steps from my last post about assessing conferences with student writers. 

Knowing that my AP students would be meeting with me for extended one-on-one conferences (it felt less disruptive to film since these occur outside of class time), I selected four on which to focus. When selecting the four, I chose two students with whom I felt confidence in the relationship (these two, in fact, typically sought extra time to confer over their writing) and two students with whom I felt less connected. I wondered: in what ways would my conferring look different?

Before filming, my instructional coach and I determined that I would examine number of questions asked and/or how questions were used, where I took steps to affirm or maintain that “love first” approach, and where I offered strategies. I chose these three lenses with the guidance of my instructional coach: I was worried about questioning my students to death, whether or not  I truly lived up to my love-first value, and the usefulness of the conference. 

Technical Aspects 

In terms of technical aspects, I filmed on my phone (I know, high-tech, right?! This means you can do it, too.). After each conference, my student scored it and I scored it; then I watched and transcribed it (imperfectly since it was mostly for me). Upon collecting each of the four videos, I shared them with my instructional coach so we could confer (ALL learners need conferring!!), and then I color- coded the transcript so I could look for patterns and other A-Ha’s (green for questions, pink for love-first/affirmation, orange for strategies). Of course, this is a limited data set; but it provided a manageable, pragmatic entry point.

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My Noticing’s

  • With each of my students, I maintained the love-first affirmation (phew!). With my student with whom I perceive having the weakest connection, affirmation proved the dominant strategy. Interactions with that student, in particular, seemed to suggest that she left with heightened confidence, ready to continue revising.
  • With my students with whom the relationship is more connected, questions dominated.
  • Strategies tended to arise from the student or me near the end of the conference.

Instructional Coach Noticing’s/Suggestions

  • He reinforced with me that conferring is a powerful way that teachers connect with students through content.
  • Beyond the areas I examined, he noted appropriate pause time during the conferring, suggesting that students had space to think and to ask questions.
  • He observed that ending the conferences with the rating of it positioned it more around how the student felt at the end of the conference rather than the last moment being about the “to-do list.”
  • He suggested that when I confer with students during class time that I audio record and skip the video; this is a simple shift to make it seem less distracting or intrusive.

Learning and Further Wondering

  1. Awareness of the level of connectedness with a student should help steer the conference. Wonder: What’s a quick question I can use to prompt myself toward this each time I sit with a student? How can I use body language to help infer level of connectedness and comfort?
  2. Understanding the student’s level of self-efficacy should also impact the moves I make while conferring. Wonder: Would student tracking of this be beneficial?
  3. With students whom I feel confident in our relationship, I can challenge more. I can ask more questions and prompt them to determine solutions or next steps. Wonder: How can I accelerate the level of connectedness and/or student self-efficacy so that more of my students arrive at this point sooner as writers? What do I need to do more deliberately here? (Note to self: study the giants–Kittle, Gallagher, Murray, Graves, Elbow, etc.)
  4. With those same students, they may also–because that confidence in problem-solving is there–initiate their own solutions. Wonder: What are ways to keep track of where students generate their own solutions versus when they use those offered through mini lessons and mentors? After all, this is what I want my writers to be able to do for themselves. 
  5. Individual conferences–no surprise here–are an effective way to redirect students to mini lesson strategies. Wonder: Do I need to more directly prompt my students to consider what strategy might work?

What’s Next?

With more time, I’d act on the suggestion of my instructional coach to audio record some of my in class conferring (those three minute regular conferences). I’m curious to see what patterns emerge with a greater constraint of time.  This experience also has me pondering what else I should be recording…mini lessons? 

Reflecting on conferring confirms the power of it in the classroom (see Amy’s #3). Reflection emphasizes that conferring truly is the best differentiation. That conferring promotes problem-solving.That conferring grows confidence. That conferring shows the ultimate flexibility, allowing for responsiveness to each learner’s needs.

Kristin Jeschke supports awesome learners at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Though nervous about directing and starring in these short films, she discovered that they were not all that painful. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.

The Great Debate: Summer Reading

While there is still snow resting on the peaks of the mountains and skiers claiming they’ll ski until the Fourth of July, summer in SLC is approaching rapidly.  The sun is hanging around later and later, the trees are blossoming, and students are ansty. The end of the school year always comes with bittersweet excitement, reflection over what was accomplished and what was not, tons of hastily written ideas on post-it notes, and summer reading.

Summer reading was both an authentic and assigned part of my summer growing up, as I was always reading and read what was asked of me for the upcoming year.  Assigning summer reading has been a part of my teaching career, too. I understand the intention for students to fend off the “summer slide” by practicing reading skills that, perhaps when a text isn’t assigned, may dwindle.  Shared books also provide an entry point into learning at the start of the school year and the beginning of collective knowledge among classes.

But this year I am questioning it all.  

After nine months of promoting choice reading and working with individual students to develop reading identities, giving my students their summer reading requirement for next year’s class feels like a step back from work we’ve done.  Likewise, assigning books to the upcoming juniors feels out of step with the work we’ll do together next year.

Assigned summer reading titles doesn’t put the individual at the center.  Students are reading texts I curated before I have even met them. Who knows if they’ll enjoy one of the books? I wonder if I’m turning them further off from reading before we have begun or if they have the reading skills and stamina to be challenged, but also be successful.  

Additionally, students are reading texts meant to be discussed and shared in isolation.  This vacuum creates an independent literacy endeavor versus one shared within a community like the one we will strive to build all year.  If a student doesn’t read, for whatever reason, they start the year a little further outside that community. Learning should be inclusive, not the catalyst for creating an exclusive group.  On the flip side, I don’t want to bog student readers down with a task or assignment because authentic readers engage without assessment.

Within a school year, week, or day, we are familiar with student schedules.  I have an idea of what students are involved in academically and after school.  I don’t know these students, let alone their summer schedules. What is my place in dictating their three-month break?

The issues with required summer reading are evident when your classroom adapts the workshop model.  The solution takes work. We have to be so driven during the school year to create authentic readers, that the summer is viewed by students as a time to read more of what they want, a time to check books off their “to read” lists versus their “must read” list.  

 

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American Literature Summer Reading Selections:  We will all read Into the Wild as a study of independence and freedom, then students will select either Homegoing, The Book of Unknown Americans, or Behold the Dreams to read as inquiry into the changing American Dream.

 

I haven’t dismantled the system (yet).   My incoming juniors do have summer reading.  I hope one of the offered choices is THAT unique book that hooks a reader or makes them curious to come to class in August.

I hope my outgoing juniors have developed enough of a sense of who they are as readers and will engage with books of their choice this summer.  Before the year is out, we will complete our reading ladder reflections, share our favorite books of the school year, book talk, add to our “To Read” lists, compile a list of “must have” titles for my library, and during our final conferences, I will ask students what they plan to read this summer.  I will continue to invest in individual readers next school year so we can re-think and re-configure summer reading assignments.

From my Three Teachers Talk Community, I’d love to know how does your school or department handle summer reading?  What strategies do you have for making summer reading authentic and engaging?  What has been the result of your school doesn’t require summer reading?  What successful changes or modifications have you made recently to support authentic reading?

 

Maggie Lopez has a full summer reading schedule of sought after titles planned, like On the Come Up and Internment, as well as vegan cookbooks, travel books, and whatever else she can get her hands on.  You can follow her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

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