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What if We Teach as if Teaching is a Story?

Sometimes I feel like a fraud. I spend all this time thinking, talking, teaching, and writing about workshop, and I love it, honestly– but sometimes teaching beats me up. You know?

Students ignore my feedback on their writing. They refuse to capitalize their i’s. They grab a random book off the shelf during reading time, thinking I won’t notice. They lie.

And usually I shake it off, tighten up the gloves, push off the ropes, and go for another round. But sometimes I don’t wanna.

When I get like this, and thankfully, it’s not too often, I have to stop and remind myself I possibleam teaching children. Teenagers, yes, but still kids who are not intentionally trying to drive me to an early retirement. They just don’t feel the passion for books, reading, writing, and language like I do — yet. Many have played the game of school so long they don’t see that they could actually like it if they’d play a different way.

Teaching is a puzzle, isn’t it? That’s what makes responsive teaching so important. We have to keep trying so all students have the learning experiences they need to grow, to change, to become.

Last week I attended a professional development meeting with George Couros, author of the Innovator’s Mindset. I jotted tons of Couros’ quotes in my notebook, all important to the kind of teacher I keep striving to become:

“How do you cultivate questions of curiosity and not compliance?”

“Data driven is the stupidest term in education.”

“Your childhood is not their childhood. Nostalgia is what gets us stuck.”

“Relationships matter! Nobody in this room is as interesting as YouTube. If you are all about the content, you are already irrelevant.”

“You need to make the positives so loud that the negatives are hard to hear.”

“Would you want to spend the whole day learning in your own classroom?”

“Every day is where your legacy is created.”

 

I think the workshop classroom IS the innovator’s classroom. It’s process over product and the whole kit ‘n caboodle.

8-characteristics-of-the-innovators-mindset

We are the risk takers in Secondary ELA. We advocate for choice and challenge. We confer with students, reflecting on their needs and on our practice — maybe more than those teachers who reuse lesson packets with their novel studies. We improve our instruction by networking and sharing ideas on mentor texts (check out this thread), assessments, mini-lessons, and how to match students with the just right books. We start with questions and often end with them as well.

No wonder it is hard.

Lately, I’ve been rereading Tom Newkirk’s book Minds Made for Stories (3TT is presenting at #NCTE17 on narrative with Tom as our chair.), and I keep coming back to this little bit on page 43:

Two Absurdly Simple Rules for Reading and Writing

If we had to pass on advice, under the limitation of twitter characters, here would be my advice for writers and readers:

  1. Read as if it is a story.
  2. Write as if it is a story.

More than ninety characters to spare.

Now, what does that have to do with this post on one teacher’s weariness, some student attitudes, and workshop as innovator’s mindset? Maybe everything.

What if we teach as if teaching is a story?

Newkirk asserts, “Reading. . . is not a treasure hunt for the main idea; it is a journey we take with a writer.” He explains that in reading we seek patterns of anticipation, tension, and resolution. We seek experiences.  He states, “. . . it makes basic sense to read dramatically, even when what we read does not easily fall into any dramatic genre… we can dramatize just about any text. We can ask what is at stake. What problem, issue, “trouble” is prompting the writing? What needs to be solved? What are the contending positions or alternatives?” In reading we take action as we link ideas. “Good writing has a sense of motion, pace, anticipation, and . . . “plot.” Critical reading is all about friction–trouble” (44).

Newkirk asserts that this provocation is equally valuable in our own writing: “What situation . . .calls for explanation? What problem [will] my writing solve?” These questions imply “a need to have our say” in response to the “tension, a friction, a puzzle, and incompleteness” our questions provoke. He writes, “If we’re only saying, “Me, too” or “I agree,” endorsing what everyone believes, arguing for the obvious, making no “news,” there would be no call to continue the conversation. Nothing is caused” (44-45).

There’s so much more in this book by Newkirk, and maybe it’s a stretch to think of teaching as if teaching is a story, but try this little exercise:  read that bit from Tom’s book again through the lens of teaching instead of reading or writing. Do you see it?

Workshop teacher-friends, we are on a journey. Many of us take risks on our campuses, going against the norms of traditional practices, feeling the tension when we offer ideas in planning meetings. We feel the friction from students set in routines that have left them weak in literacy skill and lacking in desire. We cause friction. We generate energy. We dramatize everything we love about books and authors and reading. We foster stories of change as young people begin their own journeys into more robust reading and writing lives.

And when we think it’s not working, we must remember we asked for it. (I asked for it.) We “caused” because we care enough to take the path that leads to student growth. I’ll end with this by Newkirk:

“Our best chance to grow, perhaps our only chance, is to travel.”

Amy Rasmussen teaches AP Lang and senior English at Lewisville High School just north of Dallas. She loves to cause a bit of trouble, share her love of books (Have you read John Green’s new one yet? Sooo good!), go on long drives with her handsome husband, hug her grandkids, and share her passion for workshop instruction. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk — and if you’d like to contribute to Three Teachers Talk, send her an email, amyrasmussen7@gmail.com. We are looking for regular contributors.

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A Reader’s Manifesto

After a hectic summer of being well behind my fellow Book Love Book Club readers, I finally finished Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s latest book, Disrupting Thinking.

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Yay for me!

Its ideas had been disrupting my thinking since page one.  I loved its premise, which centered around two questions the authors returned to again and again–what needs to change?  And in order to make those changes, what assumptions need to be challenged?

These questions are as good an acid test for our teaching as Louise Rosenblatt’s 1956 article of the same name.  Too much of education today rests on the status quo.  To disrupt that status quo, “good teaching sometimes feels like a rebellion,” as Penny Kittle wrote in our book club chat this summer.

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Sharon’s slide on transactional reading

Rebelling has always come naturally to me in teaching.  It’s no different now that I teach at the college level, but I’m lucky to have many like-minded peers to work alongside at WVU.

In our collaborative planning meeting last week, my friend Sharon shared her thinking about a different kind of reading and writing she really wanted our preservice teachers doing–the work of transacting.

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The BHH framework from Disrupting Thinking

“It’s from a book I read this summer,” she explained, and I exclaimed, “Yes!  I read it too!  I was just wondering how we could bring Book, Head, Heart into our weekly readings!”

Our students are proficient readers and writers, and it’s easy to assume that they don’t “need” a technique like BHH to help them interact with a text.  But to me, helping students of all skill levels become responsible, responsive, compassionate readers is the point of teaching reading.  Who cares about comprehension without understanding?  What’s the point of decoding if we don’t connect to the ink on the page?

Sometimes my college students forget that reading is more than a means to an end.  During my whole reading of Disrupting Thinking, I wondered how I could remind them about the aesthetic rather than the efferent purposes of reading from Rosenblatt’s transactional theory.

Because the truth is, the book, head, heart framework–or the aesthetic stance, or helping readers become responsible, responsive, and compassionate, or whatever you’d like to call it–is more than a guideline for students just learning to be strong readers.  It’s a manifesto for all readers.

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My notebook jots on the book

We’ve gotten away from teaching kids WHY we read and focus too often on simply HOW to read.

And that’s the problem–how to read is too simple a standard.  Yes, learning how to read is difficult.  Teaching kids how to read is hard, too.  But how to read, like so many standards we must adhere to, can be measured.  There’s a formula, an algorithm, a process:  first you decode, then you do the mental work of meaning-making, and sometimes in there you need some fix-up strategies to help you scaffold the story into your schema.  Just employ all those buzzwords and voila!  You’re a reader!

But when I shirk a pile of grading on a Sunday afternoon to finish a book, it’s not because I’m all about practicing my phonemic awareness.  And I didn’t spend an hour googling “Hurricane Harvey” at 4:00 this morning because I wanted to try out my word recognition skills, either.

Our highest standard is to help our students become real readers and writers.

It’s a standard that’s difficult to measure, but so are all of our most important, difficult goals–and it’s scary to teach all day, all week, all year, and feel like you can’t prove on paper that you’re making a difference.  The fear that we might be asked to offer evidence of our effectiveness might be what keeps teachers teaching novels and prevents them from teaching readers.  It might be why teachers persist in teaching essays instead of teaching writers.

Any good self-assessment will give you all the data in the world about how important and effective your instruction is, so if that’s what you need, again I say voila.  But if you’re searching for a way to make reading meaningful and engaging for your students, check out Disrupting Thinking, the book-head-heart framework, and their roots in Louise Rosenblatt’s work.  You’ll find a reader’s manifesto that truly shows you that why we read matters most–at every level, in every grade, across every content area.

How will you frame reading in your classroom this year?  Please share your strategies and ideas for helping students become engaged, authentic readers in the comments, on our Facebook page, or on Twitter!

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a somehow-energetic surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, sugar, and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices blog.

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.

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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

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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

 

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!

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