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Our Day One Writing: Personal User Manuals

I’ll be honest. I’ve started this post three times. At first bemoaning why I can’t believe summer is over. Then whining that I didn’t get enough done, and finally, justifying why I can’t seem to get in a writing groove. None of it matters. I started back to school yesterday. Kids come next Monday.

I will be ready. And I’ll love it.

I’ve spent hours working on my new room. It’s almost done (I’ll post photos soon), and I classroom culturefigure if I can get my room perfect, everything else will fall into place. Misplaced priorities? Maybe, but that’s how I roll. The aesthetics in my classroom matter to me, and if you’ve visited (and many teachers and admin from around TX did last year), you know what I mean. Book shelves just right. Colors and furnishings that invite. Places to chart skills taught and showcase students’ thinking. All of this matters to the culture I work hard to cultivate in my classroom.

And while I’ve worked, I’ve thought about the students whose names rest on my rosters. Who are they as readers and writers? Who are they as individuals with needs and wants and passions? How can I help them know of their potential and of the possibilities that await them not just this year but beyond?

I’m teaching seniors for the first time this fall. Since my school is on an accelerated block schedule, I will have these students for one semester. Just one. One semester at the end of their high school experience. One semester to create a community, build a culture, bridge gaps, shape literacy identities as individuals about to face the big wide world — hopefully as citizens unafraid to face their fears, and the frightening things in our society.

One semester to read and write and think — together. One semester with a dream for a lifetime.

I’ve read a lot about the importance of building community lately, and I’ve talked a lot about the first day of school in most of the pd I’ve facilitated. I used to think, especially with my AP Lang classes, I had to knock ’em dead with my syllabus the first day, list my expectations, explain my grading policy, discuss my plan for how and what they would learn. Scare them into understanding the complexities of my AP class. I blew a lot of opportunities over the years. That “my” got in the way a lot.

How can it be “our” learning community if I am the one laying out all the learning plans? If I am the only one talking about what the learning must look like?

I wrote this post Talking about the First Day of School in 2015. Funny because I’m in the same canoe this year, wondering about how I will welcome students on Day One. The last thing I want is to ignite the fear, flight, freeze response, which so often happens with that same ole same ole flood of student expectations. Students are already experiencing high levels of stress the first day of school. I do not want to accelerate it

I’ve thought about reading the poem “Possibilities” by Wislawa Szymorzska. I wrote about how my students and I used this poem to begin our understanding of rhetorical analysis last year. I’ll do that again, but it’s probably better as a week two activity.

TeacherAuthorBio

author bio, Linda Sanchez, Wylie ISD

I’ve thought about reading author bios and asking students to write their own. Lisa and I wrote about our successes with students writing author bios last year and even modeled writing author bios with our teacher friends during pd this summer. So many talented teacher writers! Author bios are a new favorite, but they’re probably not for day one.

I’ve thought about jumping right in and setting up our writer’s notebooks. I stocked up

composition notebooks

I bought 170. The cashier at Walmart scanned them one by one.

and have one for each student ready at the bell. Now, I’m wondering if setting the notebook up is as important as just writing down some thinking on the first day of school.

Susan Barber wrote about her First Day of Class activity, and the idea of beginning with reflection resonates with me. I just don’t know about a trek to the football field — our students graduate at the UNT Coliseum miles away, and TX weather means it’s still hot hot hot. I can already hear whining. I love Susan’s idea though and want to think about this more.

I keep coming back to community. And culture.

My instruction works because of the community we build as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers. Or is it a culture we create as readers, writers, listeners, and speakers? Is it possible to have one without the other?

When Lisa was in town, we sat in my car in a parking lot and talked about this very thing. Lisa shared her wisdom: “Community is the classroom. It’s more immediate.” Mentioning her teaching before her move to workshop, she said,  “I built community to help us get through the things students didn’t like — like Huck Finn.”

Interesting. So community is good — sharing likes, dislikes, working toward a common goal, getting along, respecting one another.

We talked about get-to-know you games, icebreakers, we’ve all used on the first day of school. Many of them good ideas for building community. Then Lisa asked: “Do we get-to-know for the get-to-know — or the value of learning who are students are as readers and writers?”

Ah, the beginnings of building a culture.

“Culture is more pervasive,” Lisa said, “A culture of learning in an English class values reading, writing, talking, and thinking that goes on — that has demands beyond the classroom.”

And now I’m wondering:  On the first day of school, how do I build a community that begins creating a culture, a culture that validates, shapes, and inspires my students’ identities as thinkers, readers, writers, citizens, and humans that goes beyond the classroom?

Not an easy feat. But maybe there’s an easy start.

I don’t know why I clicked on this headline, but I think I’ve found my first day of school: “Completing this 30 minutes exercise makes teams less anxious and more productive.”

I think we will write personal user manuals. It’s a task business leaders are using to help

user_guide

I’d like a better name than “user.” Any ideas?

their teams work better. Why not try it in the classroom?

The article states, “The user manual aims to help people learn to adapt to one another by offering an explicit description of one’s personal values and how one works best with others. This shortens the learning curve for new employees, and helps everyone avoid misunderstandings.” Since student talk and collaboration is central to my instruction, I think writing one-page user manuals about ourselves might put us on the fast track to better communication and the culture that fosters better learning.

Abby Falik, founder and CEO of Global Citizen Year, states: “My User Manual is one of the ways I practice leading out loud. It’s a living document that describes my innate wiring and my growing edge, while putting it out to the world that I know I am – and aim to always be — a work-in-progress.” And the article includes the structure Abby used to write her manual and a link to the manual itself. Mentor text, y’all!

Abby’s user manual centers around these six topics:

  1. My style
  2. What I value
  3. What I don’t have patience for
  4. How to best communicate with me
  5. How to help me
  6. What people misunderstand about me

I’m thinking of including prompts that probe other topics more specific to what I need to know about my students literacy histories — kind of like a reading/writing territory — and topics that can jump start connections and trust between students. Maybe things like:

Describe yourself as a reader.

What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?

Write a simile about your writing life. 

When it comes to English class, where do you feel you want to grow the most?

List ten things you like to do in your spare time.

Of all your memories, which three are the most indelible?

What five adjectives describe your disposition?

I also like these questions I read regarding building trust in Adolescents on the Edge by Jimmy Santiago Baca and ReLeah Cossett Lent, a book I just started and am already loving for content, stories, and ideas:

Have you experienced fair treatment, either by family or by the system?

How do you express appreciation? Do you often receive appreciation for your acts?

How important is it for promises to be kept, either those made to you or those you make to others?

Do you feel that you are a part of decision making that affects your life?

Are you dependable? Do you feel others are dependable?

How do you generally resolve conflicts?

How important is truthfulness to you?

Too much? Maybe. But students will have choice in what they answer — and how. And like any time we write like this, we will talk first. Talk matters in a writing classroom.

Of course, I will write my own user manual. If I get my act together, I’ll have it ready on Day One as a way to introduce myself to my students. Hopefully, I can write it in a way that lets them know that while I am intense, passionate, and purposeful in helping them grow as readers and writers, I am also pretty vulnerable, and an introvert on a stage cast in the role of extrovert.

I’m thinking we will use our user manuals a lot. I’ll include a copy of each students’ in my conferring notebook for easy access and review when I meet with them. We’ll share with our table mates. We’ll share in our book clubs and in our writing groups. We’ll share when we do group projects or collaborate on writing.

We will use our manuals like leaders in business do because “the ability to share your thoughts and ideas openly, honestly, and without fear of judgment—has been repeatedly proven the key to innovative, happy teams. Whether you’re a manager or young employee, writing and sharing a user manual has a clear business payoff. The better a team knows one other, the easier it will be for them to navigate conflict, empathize with one another, and feel comfortable sharing, critiquing, and building upon one another’s ideas.”

What do you think? How will you (or did you, if you’ve already gone back) start building your classroom culture?

 

Amy Rasmussen is the mother of six amazing young adults, grandmother of five smart and sassy little people, and wife to a brilliant marketer, sales exec, life coach, and dog lover. She teaches readers and writers in AP Language and English IV in North TX and facilitates professional development on the workshop model of instruction at every opportunity. She loves God, her family, the U.S.A., and all humans everywhere. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

 

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More Than a Coach, a Reader

Clear Creek ISD June 2017 (1)The following is a guest post from an inspiring teacher and football coach I met this summer. He sent it to me the day after my daughter got married, and I’ve been playing catch up with life and getting-ready-for-back-to-school ever since. Sorry, I am late in posting it, Charles. You have to know, this post excites me:  I’m excited for the PD experiences we had this summer. I’m excited for the students who will walk through your door this fall. I’m excited to know you will spread your love of books and reading far and wide — and I’ll be excited, and not at all surprised, when you share a few titles with your linebackers. (Have you read Twelve Mighty Orphans?)


It’s August 6th and my summer is effectively over. We start football camps Monday and I’ll work until 5pm most days making sure helmets are ready, tackling dummies are out of storage, and duties are clear. This isn’t a necessarily dreadful thing because I love coaching football, and this part of the year is rife with expectation and uncertainty.

It’s also, for me, a time of reflection. Did I make the most of my time away from the classroom? Did I find enough time to shower my own kids with love and affection? Did I make sure I did the dishes and laundry and kept the house in order so that my wife had time to relax when she got home from work? I hope the answer to all these questions is “yes,” but I fear it’s a “maybe,” at best.

I was at school most days. The first two weeks after graduation were dedicated to our very first CCISD Literacy Institute, and mornings spent with athletes at Strength and Conditioning camp consumed most of the rest. The Literacy Institute was an incredible experience in almost every way. I learned so much from my teaching partner, Meggie Willner, and we both fell head over heels in love with our group of STAAR Camp students. Working with our curriculum director, Billy Eastman, and Amy Rasmussen made this the most valuable professional learning I’ve ever experienced. Those two weeks will make a difference in the lives of students in my class and the time trade off was more than worth it. Strength camp is bittersweet because I didn’t get to sleep past 6:15, but my football players and my own kids were there for most of it, and seeing them learn and work was worth it. For better or worse, this physical connection to campus means that I never really stop thinking about teaching or coaching. I’m always there.

My summer was, for the most part, wonderful. Whether afternoon napping, writing, playing board games with my kids, or swimming in our new swimming pool, my family and I always found ways to fill our time with laughter and joy. This summer was, however, different, and not just because of our much deeper sun tans. This summer I read like a “real” English teacher should. I’ve always listened while my colleagues extolled the virtues of their summer reading regimen. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been known to crack open a book on a hot summer afternoon while sitting in the cool air-conditioning, but it hasn’t been my habit. Reading during the summer always felt like “work,” and I shouldn’t be working during my break. I should be chasing my kids around the house, helping them build blanket forts or taking them to the trampoline park. Reading threatened to get in the way of all that fun, but I wasn’t going to use that excuse this summer.

This summer, I consciously committed to being an avid reader, and while I’m sure many of you read much more than I did, that felt like a success for me.

CharlesMoorebookstackI read so many amazing books and looking at my stack makes me realize what an eclectic collection it is. I read fiction, memoir, poetry, a thriller short story anthology, and even a graphic novel. I read the first book in a series, the fourth book in a series and a few standalone novels.

I’m proud of the volume that I consumed (remember I must spend SOME time thinking about inside linebackers). I’m proud of the variety and scope and I think it will make me a better teacher going forward.

These are the books in the order in which I read them:

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My teaching partner, Meggie, and our curriculum director, Billy, wanted to throttle me when I told them how I felt about this book. They both RAVED about it and I really didn’t care for it. I’m sure a second reading would do it justice because I was dealing with a lot personally and professionally at the end of the school year while reading it, but it just didn’t resonate with me. I hope this doesn’t make me an embarrassment to the profession.

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies by Lindsay Rebar

They say reading is like a roller coaster and I went with an easy to read book for the Literacy Institute at the start of summer. A super straightforward, gently-paced book was exactly what I needed at the start of summer. I really enjoyed this book and for those seeking YA that appeals to both boys and girls, you can’t go wrong here.

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

I loved this book!!! It is a blend of Sci-Fi and fantasy with a strong female protagonist. I loved the author’s take on super powers and the surprisingly effective post-apocalyptic setting. I was tempted to read the second and third books in the series, but I want this world to be there for me when I want to revisit it.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance

This book spoke to my teaching soul. Vance examines a culture drowning in poverty and while it’s a reflection on his firsthand experiences, I felt like there was so much from his past that echoed in mine. I don’t think I realize how much our students’ home lives affect their school lives, but this book made me reflect on it again and again. This book coupled with a viewing of The Shack, directed by Stuart Hazeldine caused a sort of mid-summer epiphany that will change my teaching in the years to come. Another blog post, maybe?

Scythe by Neal Schusterman

I one-clicked this book the day Billy Eastman book talked it at the literacy institute and once I picked it up, I couldn’t stop. It’s original and well-written and even though parts of it were somewhat easy to predict, others still kept me guessing until the end.

the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

I read this poetry book under a shade tree in Wimberley, Texas, on our 16th annual summer camping trip. My mother-in-law noticed how fast I was turning the pages while reading this one and told me it wasn’t a real book. I handed it to her and she read it cover to cover. We didn’t talk about it, but I think we both knew how it affected us: deeply.

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe by Cullen Bunn and Dalibor Talajic

Determined to read a graphic novel, I picked up one about my favorite Marvel character. I’m not particularly experienced with graphic novels, having only finished George R. R. Martin’s graphic novels that are companions to his A Song of Ice and Fire. It was fun but not intellectually stimulating. Maybe this experience will help me with a reluctant reader or two or maybe give me some “street cred” with my Manga readers.

Matchup edited by Lee Child

Please don’t hate on my man crush on Lee Child. I’m obsessed with his Jack Reacher character and devour anything Child publishes. This book is produced by the International Thriller Writer’s Association and paired a dozen female authors with a dozen male authors to write a dozen short thrillers with varying success. There might be mentor texts here.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

This book was a quick read for me and it made me feel like an idiot because I didn’t see the plot twist until it was too late. I really enjoyed reading about how Yoon’s main character dealt with her problems the way a teenager would. I think this is an important book for our students to experience. To some, the main character’s relationship to her mother will be an eye-opener; to others, all too familiar.

Vanguard by Ann Aguirre

A vanity read if there ever was one. I love the Razorland trilogy and I couldn’t resist buzzing through this fourth book in the series. The love story made me uncomfortable at first, but I think books should do that sometimes. I enjoyed the happy ending in this book as my summer also draws to a happy ending. A modern Romeo and Juliet story? Maybe, maybe not.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

This might be the top of the list of my summer reading. The story was incredible, the characters were deep and it is set in the same part of the country that J. D. Vance visits in his memoir from earlier in the summer. I love when books connect like that. This is one of the few books this summer that would keep me up late at night reading. I fell in love with this book and can’t wait to read Zenter’s Goodbye Days (if I can ever get it back from our freshman A.P. teacher).

Ah, the ones that got away…

Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

The Last Neandertal: A Novel by Claire Cameron

House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

and so many more…

So now I must start a list for the new school year. I don’t typically read a lot during football season. Working 80-hour weeks and trudging through months without a day off will take the motivation out of me. But maybe I can set a goal for the fall. Something to reach toward even when my knees and ankles are tired and my eyes won’t stay open.

Maybe I can get to school 20 minutes earlier and squeeze in some reading while the coffee percolates. I crush coffee.

Charles Moore is the senior English team lead at Clear Springs High School in League City, TX. He enjoys leisure swimming, reading, and coaching linebackers. Follow Charles on Twitter @ctcoach

Want to RENEW! Get the book by @ShawnaCoppola

I have never written a book review. (Okay, maybe that’s not true. I think I remember writing one in 4th grade over a biography of Marie Curie, the first biography I ever read.)

I have never written a review of a teaching book. But I am going to try.

I am a teaching book junkie. I have stacks of them, but I rarely read the whole of them. I cannot even tell you why, and I admit there is great irony here because as I write this, I am also trying to write my own book for teachers (I have been for four years, sigh.) If I ever get it written, I hope you’ll read it.

In the mean time, I have to tell you about Shawna Coppola’s new book RENEW!

I read the whole of this book in one afternoon! Thank you, Shawna, for writing so much of my own thinking about “Becoming a Better — and More Authentic — Writing Teacher.”

Shawna’s voice sings with passion and positivity. She paints the pages with possibilities! I know, I am gushing (and that’s probably too many p’s.) But here’s the thing —

I know so many ELA teachers who do know know how to teach writing. I know many more who are not confident teaching writing. I know even more who are not writers themselves, so it’s no wonder that teaching writing is difficult. Teaching writing is hard. A book like RENEW! not only gives us a starting place, it gives us desire.

desire-is-the-starting-point-of-all-achievement-not-a-hope-not-a-wish-but-a-keen-pulsating-desire-which-transcends-everything-napoleon-hill

I am doing a lot of thinking lately around the idea of transcending. How do we go beyond our limits into something more, something better, something real and sustaining?

Let me share with you some of the passages I marked in RENEW!. I think you’ll see why this book is a must read for any teacher who needs a bit, or a lot, of renewal when it comes to teaching students to write.

“. . . if we are truly willing to honor the individuality of our student writers, the RENEW!uniqueness of each community of learners, and the ever-changing nature of our global landscape, we must continually rethink, revise, and renew our practice. Otherwise — to paraphrase Dewey — we rob “today’s students of the tomorrow today’s students deserve” (10).

“Broadening our ideas about what writing “is” can be scary, as if we are opening up a Pandora’s box. But in all reality, continuing to teach our student writers through a narrow, outdated lens — one that, in overvaluing written composition, does not accurately tell a story about the world of writing beyond most schools and classrooms — harms their development as writers by limiting the kinds of composing they are exposed to and encouraged to practice” (51).

“Teaching our writers how to develop their own tools is infinitely more sustainable than using preexisting tools. Quick survey:  How many of you use the graphic organizer your sixth-grade teacher taught you to use to write a persuasive piece? That graphic organizer may have been helpful to you then (although I doubt it was helpful to 100 percent of your classmates), but how useful is it you now?” (62).

“What message or “story” are we sending our student writers with a single overall score? Not only does it imply that their worth as a writer can be whittled down to one letter or number (which itself can mean different things for different teachers and even within different units of study), but that the worth of writing itself can be whittled down this way” (73).

“. . . readers of writing are human, an done person’s response to a composition may not perfectly align with another’s (If it did, what a drab, boring world we’d be living in!)” (79).

“Which is more likely to help students learn:  offering them specific feedback about their work, behavior, or performance, or slapping a score on a piece of paper?” (82).

“. . .when we engage in a semi-regular habit of writing, we can much more genuinely speak to those incredibly fantastic moments that writers experience on occasion, like the amazing feeling of completing a particularly difficult draft or writing something that makes a reader spontaneously laugh out loud. Anyone who’s ever taught a group of students of any age knows that when we are faking our way through something, or at the very least “phoning it in” by only engaging on a superficial level with what we are purporting to teach, students can smell our lack of authenticity a mile away. They know, even subconsciously, that they are being sold a decidedly moldy bill of goods” (92).

That’s all well and good, right? But here’s the beauty of Shawna Coppola’s book — she gives us the research that supports each of her positions AND she gives charts and graphs and resources to help us rethink, revise, and renew our approach, instruction, and practice as we become better teachers of writing. This book is chock full of everything good when it comes to writing instruction. It is a book I will return to again and again.

I hope you’ll read it. I hope you’ll share it with every ELA teacher you know. Really, it is just that good.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17.) She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

Every Teacher a Reader. Every Teacher a Writer.

Do any of you follow the Middle and High School Secondary ELA group on Facebook?

Now, I am not trying to pick any fights, but I’m just going to say it:  Some of the comments drive me straight over a rocky cliff. Honestly, I tend to get a little snarky if I spend too much time there. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Today an ELA teacher posted “Writing sucks.” What?! I sure hope a student never hears her say that. Yesterday a teacher posted this question:

“Silent reading…have you built it into your routine? For how long? Do you find your struggling readers or non-readers (at home) love this time? I currently have built it in for the first 15 minutes since I know many of my 6th grade sts do not read at home. I think it works, but just brainstorming other ways to do things for next year. Just curious what you all do! I would be curious if HS teachers still give time to silent read, too.”

I had a hard time reading the thread with comments like “They won’t read, or forget their books… It turns into wasted time.”

Of course it does, if teachers do not establish the all out importance of reading, the benefits of reading, the time commitment to grow as readers; if teachers do not walk the talk of readers, share their reading lives, promote books and match books to kids and beat the drum of reading. Every. Single Day. We have to help students value reading.

The same holds true for writing. We have to help students value writing. We have to help students value the struggle of writing well.

Are we teacher-writers who model the difficult task of writing? Do we share the struggle of getting thoughtful ideas on the page and revising and revising and revising to convey the meaning we intend to the audience we intend? Writing well means we make intentional choices and we develop the habits of writers. Read Donald Murray’s “Habits of Writing,” and then internalize his last line: “Consider my habits of writing, but develop your own by studying what you did when the writing went well, and make what you discover your own writing habits.” (If you really want to build your writer-mojo, I suggest Murray’s books, The Essential Don Murray:  Lessons from America’s Greatest Writing Teacher, and Learning by Teaching.)

We can learn to write well. We can learn to teach writing well as we discover our own writing habits and guide students into developing their own. But this will never happen if we do not write.

readerswriters

I’ve written about walking our talk before — and I believe it more every day. I think we owe it to our students to be actively engaged in the learning process the same way we ask them to be actively engaged. I can never be a good enough reader. I can never be a good enough writer.

So, this summer I commit to keep working on my craft. I will read. I will write.

If you are reading this post, I know I am preaching to the choir. I know you already share at least some of my beliefs about reading and writing. Thank you for that!

I invite you to share your reading and your writing, to amplify our collective voices as teachers who read and write, and walk our talk — even during the summer. Shana posted our summer posting plans yesterday. I hope you’ll join us on our Facebook page, our Instagram feed, and on Twitter. And as Austin Kleon famously asserts:  Show your Work!

Let’s spread it far and wide!

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in ’17. She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies (five). She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she really hopes you will follow this blog!

A Call for Real Opportunities to Learn — Not More Test Prep

Natl Literacy Trust Survey 2016

Of course, this data caught my eye.

My friend Gary Anderson posted it on Facebook with this link to the National Literacy Trust Findings from their Annual Literacy Survey 2016: Celebrating Reading for Enjoyment.

I had just spent the day working with teachers in Clear Creek ISD as they launched their two week STAAR Academy, a series of summer school-like classes designed to immerse students in authentic reading and writing — not the typical mode of tutorials often offered in the hope of helping students pass their state mandated English exams.

Billy Eastman, Clear Creek ISD High School ELA and World Languages Coordinator, is a visionary who believes in his teachers and in the students they serve. He knows that when students choose books they want to read, experience learning in an environment that validates their personal lives and learning journeys, and are given space and instruction that allows them to write about the topics that matter to them, students grow. They grow in confidence, and they grow in ability.

Thirty-five teachers met with me in a two hour institute this morning. We read and talked and wrote and talked. We built a community of teacher-readers and writers. We engaged in learning — all with a central goal:  How can we create a space for all students to advance as readers and writers?

Then, teachers planned. In teams they designed lessons intent on engaging students as real readers and writers — not just students reading and writing for a test.

After lunch, teachers facilitated similar community building activities with the roughly 250 students attending the academy.

With generous funding by his district, Mr. Eastman was able to provide books, lots of new high-interest YA literature, in which students could choose a book they want to read. This is the first step in “celebrating reading for enjoyment” and all the benefits that come with it.

As I visited the 12 classrooms this afternoon, I witnessed students writing and talking about their reading lives.

“I like stories okay,” one boy said, “but I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not really into reading,” said another.

“Reading isn’t my thing,” another boy said.

I asked one young man if he liked to read, and he told me: “Yes, I read a lot.” He had just selected Scythe, the new book by Neil Shusterman, and I could tell he was eager to get started reading it. He’d already read Unwind and quickly told me how much he enjoyed that series. The other three students in this boy’s small group were less enthusiastic about reading anything, but they were willing to try. One chose Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, another Boy 21 by Matthew Quick, and the other Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez.

As I observed every classroom this afternoon, I noticed a few things:

  • The ratio of boys to girls in most every classroom was at least 4 to 1.
  • Boys want to read books that look “tough.” The cover has to captivate them.
  • Girls will choose books with male protagonists more often than boys will choose books with female protagonists.
  • Few students choose historical fiction — they seem drawn to realistic fiction and dystopian.
  • Many students chose books teachers might deem too difficult for them. (One of the most popular book choices offered today was All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.)

For the next nine weekdays, students will read their chosen books and spend time engaged in their community of learners. They will practice the moves of real readers and writers as teachers practice the routines of readers-writers workshop and read and write beside their students. Besides the obvious benefit for students, teachers will engage in the kind of professional development that truly matters, the kind that gives hands-on experience with students as they practice the art and craft of teaching.

I am excited for the outcome. I am excited that teachers are excited. I am honored to be a part of Mr. Eastman’s vision for his district.

So what does this have to do with the National Literacy Trusts’ Annual Survey? A lot.

As I read through the report this evening, I found nothing startling or surprising. Of course, there are advantages to reading for enjoyment.

But then I shifted my thinking and began questioning the why and the what. Why does the data say what it does? Why are their gaps in enjoyment between boys and girls? Why are their gaps between age groups? What is happening in schools that might be causing these gaps? What is happening in students’ lives that might be causing these gaps? What can change if we approach reading and writing instruction differently? What should change?

I challenge you to read the report and ask yourself similar questions. Then, I challenge you to take the next step:  follow Billy Eastman’s lead. Whatever your sphere of influence, how can you allow a space for reading for enjoyment? And if you haven’t done so yet: How can you change the model of instruction in your classroom, in your school, or in your district so all students have the chance to become real readers and writers who enjoy what they read and write?

Don’t all students deserve similar opportunities to learn — not more test prep?

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in the fall). She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy because it keeps her focused on her own improvement. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she’d love it if you follow this blog!

Summer Reads to Stay Up Late With

Teachers, we are SO close.

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The end of the school year is nigh.  Perhaps it’s this week, maybe it’s next, but either way, it’s nearly time to treat yo’self with what all teachers love to do in the summertime:

Take 84 naps, and then start binge reading.

This is what I did when my school year ended a few weeks ago, and after several days of excessive sleep, I started staying up late to finish books guilt-free.

Please forgive me for what I’m about to do to your Amazon carts while I gush over the titles that’ve kept me up until the wee hours, and their friends on my TBR list:

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The Circle by Dave Eggers – This book was so plausible that it creeped me out.  It’s the tale of an ambitious college grad who lands a job at one of the tech industry’s premier companies, The Circle, who so slowly ingratiate their surveillance, social sharing, and health-tracking apps into her life (and others’) that it seems like no big deal at all–until it is a big deal.  This one kept me in suspense until 2 am, when I breathlessly finished it.  Similar titles on my TBR include The Handmaid’s Tale, Dark Matter, and The Dinner.  Creeptastic!

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A Twist in Time by Julie McElwain – I’ve been anxiously awaiting this title since I read the first book in the series, A Murder in Time.  Now that it’s here, I’ve already devoured half of its 600-page bulk, most of that on my wedding anniversary, no less.  Kendra Donovan is a modern day FBI agent, a genetically-engineered genius who’s an outcast even amongst her fellow elite criminal profilers…or so she thinks, until she’s transported through time to the 1800s and really feels like an outcast.  Now, she’s stuck there solving murders without the help of forensic equipment and techniques readily available to her in the 21st century…or any hope of getting home.

I think McElwain’s writing is a great blend of period-accurate details and modern, funny asides, and the story only further serves to suck me in.  If you, too, find yourself craving a tale of time-traveling modern women, check out Outlander or the National Book Award finalist News of the World.

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Textbook by Amy Krouse Rosenthal – I’ve been wanting to read this book since I read Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, but then got even more desperate to do so when I read Rosenthal’s heartbreaking essay in the New York Times, and then about her subsequent death.  It’s impossible not to read this book through those lenses, and while it’s amazing on its own, it’s even more powerful as a magnum opus.  I also want to check out similar memoirs like The Rules Do Not Apply, Hallelujah Anyway, and Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things

 

 

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Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentzler – I read this one in two days over Memorial Day weekend, largely ignoring our company to finish it that Sunday.  I was sucked in on page one by the beautiful writing and the premise–a teen dealing with the fact that he sent a text message that led to the deaths of all three of his best friends–and I asked my friends if they’d read it.  “I did,” Amy volunteered.  “It ripped my guts.”  And boy, did it.  This was one of the first YA reads I’ve picked up lately that I really just couldn’t put down.  I’d love to see how The Inexplicable Logic of My Life, A List of Cages, and The First Time She Drowned can measure up to this book.

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Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers & Bob Probst – Lisa has been so effusive about this book that I just had to go ahead and start reading it, even though I’ve been trying to wait until everyone else in the Book Love Summer Book Club dives in.  But it’s so darn readable, and such a great refresher of a lot of the research I’ve read and loved.  I always enjoy Beers and Probst for helping synthesize their wide reading into a crucible of new ideas.  Other fabulous pedagogical reads on my TBR list this summer are Joy Write, No More Telling as Teaching, and Write What Matters.

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When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – This book hit home for me, and at quite a short length, I read it in one day–about half of it while on a treadmill!  It’s the memoir of a neurosurgical resident who, near the end of his grueling training, finds out he has advanced stage cancer.  My husband is entering his fourth year of orthopedic residency, so I read this book with a blend of horror at its possibilities and admiration for its author’s poise and eloquence.  My gushing over it led to lots of our resident friends reading it with similar amounts of waterfall-like tears.  After reading it in an afternoon, my hubby asked for some more books like it, so I ordered him Being Mortal, The House of God, and The Buddha and the Borderline.

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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – I listened to this now-famous (in teacher circles, anyway) book on audio, and found myself driving or walking in circles so I could hear more faster.  What impressed me most about this book wasn’t its nuanced treatment of the topic of police shootings, or its awesome one-liners, or its many layers of issues faced by its narrator, Starr.  No, what impressed me most was how authentic to Angie’s life and personal history it seemed.  After reading Between the World and Me, I learned a great deal about the roots of African-American empowerment and efforts for equality.  Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, James Baldwin, and more had been strangers to me before that book, but I saw them come up again and again in The Hate U Give.  

This terrific book definitely broadened my worldview, and to help it grow more, I’d also like to read American Street, All-American Boys, and Allegedly.

What’s kept you up late reading lately?  What’s next on your TBR?  Please share in the comments…so we can all go broke buying books!!

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life…and in the new knowledge that she has ANOTHER baby girl on the way!!  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

5 Lessons from Public Teaching

51A2WRYQAZL._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis week I tackled a title that’s long been on my to-read list:  Public Teaching: One Kid at a Time by Penny Kittle.  Published in 2003, it’s Penny’s first book, and has a foreword by Don Graves and an afterword by Don Murray.

(Yeesh…no pressure for when the rest of us thinking about writing our first books, right?!)

I loved this book, a collection of short essays plus an interview with Penny at the end.  It was readable, honest, and spectacularly well-written, as everything by Penny is.  I smiled as I read every page–except for the pages where I was crying.  Even in those essays I found myself impressed by the cleverness of Penny’s craft, both in her teaching and writing.

I bookmarked lots of pages and quotes to share with my preservice teachers this fall, but here are five lessons I took away from the reading that I believe are relevant to teachers of all content areas.

 

No one is perfect.

Penny begins her book with several amusing essays on mishaps from murderous crickets to accidentally-transparent skirts.  She eases us into the notion that even she, the great Penny Kittle, has had some missteps in her career, then launches into a few gut-wrenching essays on what she reflects on as her more weighty teaching failures:  a student we never say the right thing to, one we lose patience with, one we never teach to love learning or reading or writing.

We all have memories of those students, and Penny honors this with her writing.  I loved these vulnerable, humble essays that remind me we all ride a rollercoaster of success when it comes to our teaching.

Classroom management is a myth.

Penny tells the story of a novice teacher, struggling to manage her classroom, making wrong turn after wrong turn as a battle with her students escalates.  She has this to offer:

“Classroom management is really about the management of the heart and soul of your students.  The only ‘technique’ that works is a full-hearted human response to their lives, and to the conditions of school.  In some schools students sit in rows and listen, then rush to their next class, to sit and listen even more.  Try to understand the conditions in your particular school and view the entire day through their eyes. … You aren’t bad.  Your students are children, preoccupied with myriad distractions.  It is a natural state.  School is often the unnatural one.”

This advice was so much better, for me, than the age-old wisdom I got from mentors when I first began teaching and a lesson would crash and burn:  “don’t take it personally.”  I did take it personally, and still do, when I lose a class’s attention or a lesson falls flat.  When I learned the lesson Penny teaches here–“You must teach the students, not the content.  I want every student in my class to know that he or she is more important than what I am teaching”–I had far fewer of those flat moments and many more roundly satisfying ones.

Novice teachers need mentors, not critics.

We’ve all heard the statistics that half our teachers will leave the profession within three years.  As Penny says, “teaching, like marriage, is best when you make it past the courtship.”  The first few years are hard, and what makes them easier is exactly what improves my marriage:  talk.  As a young teacher simultaneously full of ambition and anxiety, I became more even-keeled when I found mentors.  I talked with them, they empathized, they advised.  I felt more prepared for my work, but I also felt less alone when I found a group of peers to encourage and support me.  “We have to mentor new teachers, listen to them, and I guess, hold hands once in a while,” Penny remarks.

Less is more.

“Somehow we decided that four short stories is better than one rewritten four times, and it’s a huge mistake.”

Penny’s assertion about the way many teachers conceive of writing is so true to my own learning experience, and as a result, my own early teaching experience.  I’ve been interested in the idea of simplifying my instruction for a while, and of course, Penny helped me see more clearly how to do it–with revision.

“I needed to have them linger longer over less,” she says, then backs it up with stories about an entire day’s work spent on fragments, the slow process of discovery learning, the work and power of weeks of revision on one genre of writing.  We have to jettison some things if we really want students learning, to keep it simple, to remember that less is more.

Teachers need to write.

By joining a writer’s group of teachers at her school, writing an essay for the local paper with her students, and carving out the time from motherhood to write, Penny learned to be a much better teacher by writing.  Her peer and student readers, as well as her editors, taught her to “be positive.  Encouragement works; criticism hurts.  Be careful with words.”

It’s hard to learn this lesson if you’re not a writer yourself, and Penny shows us her journey to becoming one throughout her essays.  She describes the early days of her writing group this way:

“Their criticism stung.  I didn’t like it.  You have to be careful when you’re correcting someone’s work.  I don’t think I was careful enough with my students all those years before.  It was so easy to just tell them what wasn’t working and think that was helping.  In writers’ group I learned quickly that compliments showed me what I could do and gave me confidence, criticism confirmed my fears and left me frustrated.  When I confidently approached a piece to revise it, I was playful.  When I went back to one in frustration, I usually made it worse.”

We become better teachers when we do what we’re asking our students to do–it’s only then that we can really know what we’re asking of them.  I highly recommend reading Public Teaching, doing some writing (how about with us?), and reflecting on your teaching by doing both.

43ccacd3aa51c2341980e1e34e34cba6.jpgAs we near the end of the school year, I hope you can find truth in one of Penny’s final statements:  “In my experience, it isn’t the stress that’s left the greatest mark, it is the joy.”

Shana Karnes teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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