Author Archives: Amy Rasmussen

Guest Post by Sandi Adair

On my way home from school on the last day, I made a side-track to drop off a book for a student. As I left the book on the porch with a post-it note attached, I jumped into my car and drove off excited for her to get this surprise. We had just spoken on ZOOM in the chat extensively about this book, and how I thought she should add it to her summer reading list. This is a student who I have only met in person once this year, but created and maintained our connection via messaging back and forth during class. I knew what books she had read, and some of her interests, so I had the perfect book for her to read next.

Early on, I set an expectation of daily independent reading to start class, and while I could easily monitor and conference with my face-to-face students, the virtual realm is where it got trickly. My in-class kids liked to tell me that the virtual kids weren’t really reading, and the ones that returned were quick to come clean about that fact. Nonetheless, I didn’t give up, and found my readers, nurtured those that needed suggestions and created a dialogue of honesty and frankness about reading habits. Some read the news all year; others listened to podcasts. Through it all, they had a choice. And the ten minutes of solitary silence also did something for our collective mental health. That I know for sure, because students told me weekly that they enjoyed that time to read and regroup. The act of focusing on the words on the page, getting caught up in a story, or hearing the familiar voice of the narrator was calming, something we needed so much this year.

Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash

The gift of words can come in many forms. Sharing these words together, sharing these experiences, sharing these situations–that is what I choose to continue. I am not naive to the fact that my students on the other side of the screen may not have actually been reading, but when I played an audio, or read aloud to everyone (yes even in 10th grade), those were always the best days. Sharing words, sharing stories, sharing experiences together – that is the silver lining of the year.

Time and time again, my students told me that they enjoyed reading our one class novel that we did together this year, and they asked for more. That was the one thing they asked for, to read more books together. Due to the nature of the school year, we actually read and listened to our class novel. The conversations that ensued were like water in a desert. Talking about ideas, themes, characters and more was a shared experience that brought us together. 

Sharing books together is the biggest joy of being an English teacher for me, and always has been. We have the important duty of sharing what we love, welcoming new perspectives and ideas, and creating readers of all ages. Kids want to be challenged to think, discuss, be engaged, enlightened, listened to. Getting virtual students and in-person students to talk together as one class was the single most important and rewarding aspect of this year. I knew that if we were reading something that day, it would be a good day. 

Sandi Adair has been an English teacher for 23 years. She was a Dallas Morning News Teacher Voice Outstanding Columnist in 2014. Currently, she teaches high school in McKinney, Texas.

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

theofficeofficequotes.com

Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

Getting Smarter about Informative Texts

I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:

“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”

Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”

And then I got smarter.

It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.

I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.

For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.

Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.

Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash. Narrowing topics is often like this quarry: stair step it down until the topic is small enough yet rich enough to write enough. Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash.

Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.

And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.

Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)

Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.

When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.

While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)

I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.

A Huge Bright Moment in a Pretty Bleak Year

GUEST POST by Rebecca Riggs

Last year around this same time in “the before,” my students were participating in a book tasting to choose their book club books for the fourth quarter of school.

As I walked around the library (no seating chart needed) and looked at my students smile, scowl, and everything in between, students passed around books on their tables. I built up my library of books so I had multiple copies of popular, widely representative books mostly from the ProjectLIT list, and I was very excited to see what students would pick.

I spent the first days of my break leafing through my students’ ranked choices, and I was pleasantly surprised that they almost all fell perfectly into groups where I was able to give them their first choice.

It was my team’s first time trying out book clubs; I was thrilled to try something new and to see what it would teach me! Unfortunately, we all know how that ended–my students never got to do those book clubs, and I did not get to see them again.

Here we are a year later with my current students (including some of those students from last year since I moved up a grade) engaging in overwhelmingly successful book clubs in a hybrid teaching model in a pandemic!

If you told me at the beginning of this dumpster fire of a school year that I would have been able to try out any new instructional model, let alone book clubs, I would have told you to cut out the toxic positivity and leave me to my despair.

I will not lie, the logistics and setting things up was a lot of work and overwhelming at times, but I am so glad we took the time to do this. My students are having meaningful conversations about their books, some are reading a whole book for the first time in years, and almost all engaging more than they have this year because of these clubs.

I am so grateful for this huge bright moment in a pretty bleak year.

As far as logistics go–

I first gathered class numbers from each of my colleagues who do not have their own sets of book club books, and I made sure we could make it work with what I and my one other colleague, Deanna Hinnant, had.

Since last year, we have taken advantage of First Book Marketplace’s low prices, promo codes and book bank prices to gather books for clubs.  Once that was settled, and I gave those teachers their books, we had to figure out how to facilitate a book tasting that was both safe and accessible to students online.

My amazing librarian, Tasha James, made us book tastings for students to choose books for their independent reading at the beginning of the year, and I just modified one she had already created. My colleagues who did not feel as tech-savvy reached out to Mrs. James, asking her if she could create their book tastings for them.

Here is the one I created. I gave the students about half of a class to look at the book tasting and to complete this form to rank their choices.

From there, it was pretty easy to get kids into groups and to assign kids who chose not to respond. I intentionally had the groups be a mix of online and on-campus students, but some of my colleagues chose homogeneous groups. I also chose to go through each book and break it into 5 sections that aligned with chapters (if there were any), and I gave them this document in hopes that the groups would mostly stay on the same page. (I know there are date discrepancies between some of the documents. We can thank the Texas Winter Storm for that one!) My colleagues chose to let their students break it into 5 sections themselves and decide as a group where they would reach in their book for each discussion, which seemed to work just as well.

After we had our list of groups, we stayed after school two different days in two different weeks in order to hand out books to online students. We began advertising this well before students even chose their books through parent emails, telling the students at the beginning of every class, and sending Remind101 messages. As expected, there were lots of students who did not pick up their books. We tried our best to meet with these students one-on-one to set up alternate times, to leave the books in the front office for them to get or to explain to them how they can get the book online from our school/county library. At the end, 90% of the students got a hold of their book in one way or another, and the ones who did not were not participating in class at all regardless.

For our assessment, we created a TQE document that you can view here.

We practiced using this method during our reading of The Crucible one time before it was used for book clubs to make sure students understood the method, but also to make tweaks because it was our first time as teachers using the method, too. The “Topic of the Week” aligned with our mini-lessons each week and were merely a suggestion of what to think about as they read. You can find more about the TQE method from the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast episode 103 or from their blog post. This is where we got the idea and modified the method for our purposes.

Overall, I found this method to be an amazing, fairly-easy way to get kids to make their thinking visible and to prepare them for their book club discussions. However, I did have to “fail forward” when I realized during the second book club discussion that I had not made it clear that the “Thoughts” and “Questions” (and maybe epiphanies) portions were to be filled out before their discussion while they read in preparation for the discussion.

The standards we were focusing on for the reading, TQE’s and discussions can be found here.

When I tell you that these book club discussions I listened into made my heart leap in my chest, I am not being hyperbolic in the slightest. These kids, man. They just amaze me.

Students were demonstrating mastery of so many standards, but also just saying such thoughtful things while connecting with each other. It’s everything I have wanted for this year.

It was not a perfect start, and some kids came to their first discussion with only five pages read, but I saw so many kids start to read when they heard how excited their peers were about their reading.

I had a couple groups of students who I actually had to redirect because they would try to talk about their books when we were working on other tasks in class, or I was giving a lesson. Honestly, I do not even mind that they were being disruptive!

I had one student who is designated as SPED who was reading Monday’s Not Coming* by Tiffany D. Jackson who was having a hard time getting into the book and getting motivated. After her groupmate encouraged her and raved about the book, this student read 100 pages in one day. She shared that this will be the first book she’s read in its entirety in years. Many students have been positively affected, but that one student becoming a reader would have been enough to make it all worth it. Fortunately, this is one of many stories of students finding books they love and finally seeing themselves as readers.

I will not lie and tell you that the organization and logistics were not hard and time consuming and frustrating at times. We had students we couldn’t get in contact with. We had different people, including me, out at different points during that unit for weeks at a time and others on our team had to pick up the slack.

We also had an unprecedented winter storm in Texas that took a week of instruction and rocked many of our staff and colleagues’ lives.

Some students never got their books and some students are still just on page 50 after five weeks of reading. In addition, we had students dropping other classes three weeks before the end of the quarter grading period and being added to our classes in the middle of book clubs.

It was not perfect, but it is one of the most impactful things I have done in my classroom since I started doing independent reading with my students, and I cannot believe we were able to pull it off during hybrid teaching with everything else we have added to our plates this year.

As my dad would say, “You can do hard things,” and this hard thing was well worth the effort.

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Rebecca Riggs is currently in her 4th year teaching (feels like 10th) at Klein Cain High School in Houston, TX. She loves recommending books! You can find her on Twitter @rebeccalriggs and on Instagram @riggsreaders 

Reading through Liberty

My two-year-old grandson is a master manipulator–or maybe he’s just brilliant.

Over the weekend, his mom and dad took a little anniversary trip, so Papa and I tended Indy and his baby brother. More than once, when we needed/wanted/pleaded with Indy to do a certain thing, he ran to the bookcase in our room, pulled out a book–or four or seven–and sat down to read. “Shh. Quiet,” he’d say, patting the space on the floor next to him in a commanding invitation to sit beside him.

What else is a grandparent to do but stop and read with the little man?

We all know the benefits of reading to young children. (Google gives “about 921,000,000 results” for the question.) We also know that somewhere along the way, many children, maybe especially adolescents, come to not like reading.

Most of us face two challenges:

How do I get students to read when they just don’t want to?

How do I get students to read when they just don’t seem good at it?

I used to think it was all about the books. You know, I’d pack the shelves in my classroom library with the most colorful, interesting, inclusive, newly published, award-winning books; I’d talk about these books A LOT, doing my best to match books with student interests. I’d do All The Things.

And, yeah, many students came to like our dedicated daily reading time. Some of them even came to like the books they read. Many of them claimed to have read more than they ever had before. I’m just not super sure how many students came to really like reading.

Maybe that’s okay.

The other day I saw this tweet by Sarah, a friend and contributor to this blog, and I quickly read the whole of the thread posted by Miah on April 4. It’s a beautifully constructed and compelling argument and well worth your time to read in full. Like Sarah, “I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.”

Today, I’m thinking about it here in relation to my tiny grandson and the reader he may be when he’s 10, 14, 17, or 37.

Miah lists reasons we teach reading: “We teach reading for. . .security. . .self-advocacy. . .freedom. . .economic security. . .social justice. . .evolution. . .social advancement. . .liberty in the highest sense of the word.”

and includes this sage advice–

I think we know what “the noise” is, even beyond how Miah describes it. There’s noise in so many aspects of our teaching lives. And sometimes, nay often, it is hard to ignore. Yet you and I both know we must.

And I think one way to do it is to position liberty: We teach reading for liberty, but we also teach reading through liberty.

If you’re nerdy like me, maybe you look up “liberty” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a whole list of definitions: “The quality or state of being free” and all the context descriptors–all but speak to the importance of student choice when it comes to reading in a high school English class. Thus, a robust classroom library and all the things.

Then, there’s this definition: “a right or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant PRIVILEGE

And there it is–the word privilege making me think again.

In context of my teaching practice, who has the liberty to talk, ask questions, move about the room, take risks, choose texts, shape plans, assess learning? What’s privileged, where, and when?

And, yes, I know–if you’ve read this blog for awhile now, I am most likely preaching to the choir.

But even if we “get it,” even if we try it, even if we’re tired of trying or tired of this pandemic, even if we cannot handle one more decibel of noise–if we believe in empowering students with the skills they need to capitalize on the liberty life affords them–or liberate themselves so they have more–we keep thinking and reflecting, and we keep doing the things that help young people have experiences with reading that make them want to read.

Try This “Conversation Starter” (I read it recently in the Morning Brew, an online newsletter I read pretty much every day.)

If your bookshelf could only have five books, what would they be?

You can learn a lot about an individual–positive, negative, and otherwise–depending on the books they choose, or if they don’t make any choices at all.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things–like plants, art frogs, and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

Today’s a Good Day to Write a Poem–or anything really

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Posts here have been scant for quite a long time. Maybe the reasons are too complicated to explain, or maybe they only make sense in my head. I could probably figure out how to explain the gap year, but if you’re like most of my students you’d think there’s too much print on the page and skim or skip this post before it really says anything.

I’d rather just say “Hi! I hope you are well, sane, surviving–maybe even enjoying this crazy life we are living. I’m glad you are here, and I’m working on stiffening my spine and sharpening my skills for the 3TT Come Back Tour.”

Since today launches National Poetry Month, it only makes sense to think and write about poetry. A quick search reminded me I wrote something similar close to two years ago today– Can Poetry be Wrong? And Other Inspiration for #National Poetry Month. I still believe in what I wrote there. Maybe I believe it even more. I’m still stunned by the first comment: “Yes. In fact, most poems are wrong, the 99.99% of poems that do not survive the test of time.” What the what?!

Since I wrote that post in March of 2019, my life has changed in dramatic ways–some positive, some not-quite-so, and some tragic (these still leave me reeling.) And when I read poetry, even snippets of it on my IG feed, my moods and emotions get a boost, a validation of sorts. I am grateful for the wonder of it all: Someone somewhere said in a poem something I wanted/needed/hoped to say.

Today, I’m wondering how you will celebrate National Poetry Month — by yourself and with your students. There’s some great ideas at the previous link. Here’s a three more if you are still looking–

Join #verselove21. It’s a celebration–and a challenge–to read and write poetry, hosted by Dr. Donovan at the Ethical ELA blog. I’ve joined in several of her Open Writes and always find new ways to expand my craft–and ideas to use with student writers. Writing a poem a day for 30 days is hard for me, but I like to try. It’s also hard to share, but I do it anyway.

Check out some poets on Instagram. Raquel Franco and Amy Kay are two new favorites, and both have posted a list of prompts for the month.

Order the keepsake book of Amanda Gorman‘s poem “The Hill We Climb, an Inaugural Poem for the Country.” (I’m reading it slowly and playing with tiny illustrations on the pages.) Note: If you order through the link, 3TT will get a tiny something.

Use the photos on your phone for inspiration. For example, look at the last five photos and choose one for inspiration. Or, scroll through and notice colors; then choose an image with a color that speaks to you today. Or find an image of an object and write a poem that personifies it. There’s so much inspiration in our phones!

And if you just don’t have it in you to write poetry this month, (I get it. I really do.) I hope you will at least find some time to enjoy it. Whether you take a shallow dip or a deep dive, I hope you’ll find joy. And maybe you’ll find these words by another of the IG poets I follow worth noting–

how to understand the poem:

do not be afraid to feel it. (alison.malee)

Please share in the comments your best tips for leveraging National Poetry Month or leveraging poetry in any month.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things, like plants and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

“Why don’t they like us?”

My neighbor Crystal brought me to my knees. I am new to the neighborhood, and she’s been the most inviting.

Crystal is a Black woman, a strong, affable, beautiful mother of three elementary-age children.

We stood on the side of the porch, talking about plants, vacations to the beach, schooling at home, her trampoline and my crazy barking dogs. We talked about books and bonded over Victorian romance novels.

She told me her background–how her family doesn’t understand why she moved to the country “to live with the whites,” how she wants her children to have more than she ever had growing up, how she works from home, so she can “always be there for my kids.”

Crystal told me of the neighbor across the street and three doors down who called the cops on her son when he got in a scuffle with his friend, a little white girl who hit him first.

He was six.

Then she grinned and told me how she loves to walk by that house, and while the kids are “no longer friends,” her family smiles and waves as they walk by.

That “incident” was three years ago.

Crystal then got solemn. She looked over at her daughter, looked back at me and said, “I’m so glad to talk to you this way this morning. Last night we watched CNN–all that’s on the news–and my kids ask me: ‘Why don’t they like us?’ You talking to me is good. My kids need to see us talking.”

My, God.

Like you, I imagine, my thoughts and emotions are a mess. Nothing compared to my Black friends, I’m sure, but a mess nonetheless.

My family is interracial. My grandsons bleed Black blood. The injustice I see is personal. But even if it wasn’t, my soul would scream for an end to all the cruelty, the disparity, the inequity and inequality. The destruction of Black lives.

It has for the years I’ve spent in the classroom, teaching mostly children of color–learning about their lives, hopes, plans, and dreams–and hoping, somehow, I can help them achieve, what seems to be all too often, the impossible.

Therein lies the problem. Their Lives should always be possible.

Black Lives Matter.

And as an educator and as a white woman, I will keep listening and learning. I will keep advocating for authentic and humane teaching practices that honor the lives of the most vulnerable until they are not most vulnerable. I hope I see that day in my lifetime. Today would be good.

I know social media has been inundated with resources of late–many solid reading lists, much needed as white people work to educate ourselves. I offer three more:

This article lists Black owned bookstores. I ask that you support these enterprises. If you read this blog, you already know the power of books and reading. Please support these business owners and invest in this power.

This article includes an interview with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of the book Just Mercy. I read this book in 2014 when it was first published. It’s one of a handful of books that have challenged and changed my core.

Follow #31daysIBPOC on Twitter and read the posts by these brilliant, passionate, inspiring educators. They challenge, charge, and call for change. They have helped shape my thinking both professionally and personally, and I am grateful for their voices.

We cannot remain silent, sheltered, or shrug off the responsibility. We must be actively anti-tacist in thought, word, and deed. All the time.

Crystal and her children deserve more. And they deserve it every second of every day. Never should a Black child anywhere at any time ever feel “Why don’t they like us?” Ever.

In my heart, it’s as bad as “I can’t breathe.”

Early Morning Thoughts and a Couple of Ideas

I don’t usually notice things like Netflix Top Ten, but I couldn’t help it as I clicked my tv on this morning. It’s not really a surprise that Pandemic showed up as #7 in TV shows and Outbreak as #7 overall in the USA. I do think it’s a little curious that both lined up in the lucky 7 slot on St. Patrick’s Day.

I doubt too many of us are feeling lucky or wearing green or worried about getting pinched today. There’s just too many other things to worry about, if worry is your thing.

I’m not letting it be mine.

This past nine weeks I taught my first ever science fiction literature course. My students and I read a lot of stories and articles about the genre, and we watched a lot of sci-fi movies, followed by meaningful discussions about humankind and the characters’ actions and reactions to a variety of conflicts. A few ideas surfaced again and again:  the will to survive, the courage to sacrifice, the need for innovation, and the strength to persevere.

And now we are here:  Covid2019, self-distancing our way through what should be science fiction.

So what do we do in such stressful times?

I think we have a choice:  we can hunker down into the drama–joining in with the complainers and the I-don’t-wannas–or we can hike up and embrace the adventure of it all. I think our students need us to see it as an adventure. And every teacher I know knows how to turn a stressful situation into a less stressful one. Yes, we are living in a time of crisis, and, yes, we can use it to do what we do best. Teach.

If you’re already teaching remotely, or if you’re like me (finally on spring break) and gearing up for it, there are tons of resources that will help.

You’ve probably already found the lesson plans and YouTube videos and flipgrid Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle have shared.

Maybe you’ve seen the resources Caty Dearing posted. Or the pandemic inquiry Shawna Coppola created.

I have two ideas to add: They are a bit light-hearted (something I think we all need).

My family is a funny bunch, and we use an on-going Snapchat thread to crack each other up. Yesterday, my son-in-law who is now working from home and daycaring my almost 15 month old grandson, shared this series of photos:

thirstymilkgone

watchingashowewbath

For visual story telling, I gave my son-in-law an A+ (as a dad, too!). And I think this might be my next model text. Think about the stories students can create with the cameras in their phones–Covid-19 crisis related, or not. Maybe even pair visual stories with found poems or other poems, stories, or articles they find online–anything that helps them make connections and think critically.

Another thing my family Snaps at each other is memes. Every single day. And if you don’t think memes can be used to teach social commentary, sarcasm, irony. . well. . .

meme2typesofpeoplememehowdoyouwishtopaymemep&gmemthoughtsprayers

There are tons! Check out Memedroid for more. Our students can even make and upload their own. Imagine an online discussion board where they share and then evaluate their creations.

Our students need to laugh. They need us to laugh. It’s so much better than crying. Or being scared. Or feeling anxiety. Or. . . hoarding toilet paper.

Thank you all for reading this post and this blog. You are the best of the best, and I appreciate all you do for children every day. Know that my prayers are with you during this troubling time. I’ll leave you with my early morning thoughts strung into a little poem:

This too shall pass

Relax

Enjoy family

Read a good book

Go for a walk

Outside

Listen to Mozart

Look up Mozart

Water some plants

Dig some dirt

Dirty some clothes

Outside

Learn something new

Try a paint brush or a brush pen

Pen a letter

Mail it

Bake bread

Breathe

This too shall pass

 

Amy Rasmussen lives and teaches in North Texas. She’s a fan of positivity and purposeful doing, and she really wishes she’d packed up boxes of books from her classroom library before spring break and brought them home for the neighborhood kids since the public library is closed. She may just put her personal collection of picture books on the porch and post a sign that says “Borrow books here. Free Clorox wipe when you bring ’em back.” You can follow her on Twitter @amyrass

A #FridayReads Come back

How could I forget?

I just remembered I used to celebrate #FridayReads with my students. Every week, after independent reading time, we’d talk about our books, maybe tweet a selfie with them, maybe imitate a favorite sentence. It was probably a Friday when we wrote book reviews in the form of haikus. It was a Friday when we became literary critics. That one was epic.

This year we’ve been having Friday discussions. Reading, talking, listening. That’s worked well — we’ve explored many interesting and important issues — but I completely forgot about doing more with our books. Dang it.

No wonder my students are not reading as much as they have in the past.

I won’t play the What/If game, but it’s staring at me in with weary eyes.

This morning I read about the 2019 National Book Award winners, and while I haven’t read any of them, yet; I gulped at the beauty of these lines, shared by one of the winners as she spoke of her mother–

“As a child, I watched her every move, seeing her eyes fall upon every word everywhere — encountered in the grocery store, on a bus, pamphlets, the package labels, my high school textbooks. She was always wolfing down words, insatiable — which is how I learned the ways in which words were a kind of sustenance, could be a beautiful relief or a greatest assault.”

Words. A beautiful relief or a greatest assault.

On this Friday, I think we will start here. We’ll write in response to this idea:  How are words both a relief or an assault?

Then, we’ll explore books — in anticipation, and hope, that just maybe one of my readers will fall in love with words.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large high school in North Texas. She’s still working on building her classroom library to its former glory, and knows she needs to read more herself if she wants to get every student into a book they will love. Follow her on Twitter @amyrass

The Power of Authentic Literacy

Let me tell you about my fall, y’all. It’s been a doozy. 

Depending on which list of the top life stressors you look at, I’ve managed to hit two, maybe three, right on the head. And mine is spinning.

I moved last week. If you’ve ever packed and moved during the school year, you know how stupid I planned the timing. The Rockstars and Tylenol PM have kept me functioning. Some.

Sometimes life gets in the way. Sometimes life gets away from us.

new books in honor of my father

My English department surprised me with this gift of books in honor of my father — one of the sweetest things colleagues have ever done for me. My classroom library is growing!

My father passed away the first part of September. And while he was old, and his health had been fading for a while, his death hit me hard. I used to call him when I drove long distances alone to present workshops. I miss our talks. My dad was a quintessential optimist:  wise, encouraging, smart — and he believed in me.

We all need people who believe in us. 

Everyday I try to show my students I believe in them. They’ve been so great with all my spinning. Compassionate, kind, studious. Mostly.

I started at a new school this year, and I’ve remembered how much I love working with young people. I also remember how much I detest the distractions: the drills, the mandatory To-Do’s, the paperwork. But that’s a post for another day.

Most days I fake my way — I’ve yet to find a rhythm.

But that’s okay. I believe in the power of authentic literacy instruction. I know those who read and write and communicate well have a better chance at navigating life than those who don’t. 

So everyday we read. Everyday we write. Everyday we talk about our reading and writing. Every Friday we discuss important issues. I believe these things trump any other use of instructional time. The routines work. But for many students it is hard.

A few students fake their way — they’ve yet to find their reason.

That’s not okay. I will keep trying. Trying to get books in hands that spark joy in reading, trying to develop writers who believe in the power of words and the beauty of language, trying to get the quiet ones to share their thinking with their peers. They often have the greatest insights.

My evaluator visited my class last week. We were analyzing essays, discussing the writer’s craft –noticing the moves and their effect on meaning– and preparing to write our own Op-Eds. As the administrator left the room he whispered, “It’s hard to get them thinking.” 

Yesterday in our writing workshop, right after a little skills-based lesson on making intentional moves as writers, a young man said, “You mean everything I write has to mean something?”

What do you do with that?

I think we have a hard row to hoe, my friends. Gardener, or not, helping our students understand the role of critical thinking in their lives is what may save them. It may save us. It’s saved me for the past few months.

In a Forbes’ article published a year ago, titled “What Great Problem-solvers Do Differently,” we learn five skills that enable people to be great problem solvers:  deep technical expertise and experience; the ability to challenge, change, innovate, and push boundaries; a broad strategic focus rather than a narrow focus; drive/push; and excellent interpersonal skills.

I can’t help wondering how I can help students develop more of these skills while in my English class. I know it’s possible. Possibilities mentor hope.

This week a small group of my students — seniors who are eager yet terrified (their words not mine) to face the world after high school — and I chatted a bit about the responsibilities of adulting. I’m afraid I didn’t quell their fears. I might have quickened them. 

The stress that comes with independence sometimes sends us spinning. 

My students are my witnesses, and while I’d wish it otherwise, perhaps this fall is the most authentic I’ve ever been as a teacher.

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English in a large suburban high school in North Texas. She tries to write beside her students and wrote this piece as a practice for their Op-Eds. She’s currently trying to unpack and get used to her new commute. Dallas traffic can be a doozy.

 

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