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Five Ideas that Beat the Dread

A few years ago I stopped reviewing class rules and smacking down my syllabus on the first day of school. I had been doing some research on chronic stress (mostly my own) and read extensively about the fight, flight, freeze response. One description glared at me and gave me pause:  “You have a sense of dread.”

I remembered what I had been taught as a first year teacher:  Set yourself up as the authority figure. Be kind but firm. Establish norms quickly so students know what you will and will not tolerate in your classroom.

Then, almost in the same breathe, I was told:  Develop relationships. Learn students’ names. Let them help develop class rules.

And I muddled through doing a combination of both the best I knew how. Those first few days of my first few years were rocky to say the least. And in hindsight, it’s clear:  there was dread. Lots of dread.

So when I read up on the fight, flight, and freeze response, I realized a big part of my problem:  With my seemingly simple attempt at outlining classroom expectations and detailing how ‘my class would run, chemicals danced a jig in students’ brains: fight, flight, or freeze. Now, I know my syllabus is not on the scale of major life trauma most often associated with this fff response theory, but many of my juniors and seniors didn’t want to be in school anyway. Why was I compounding it?

I learned a better way.

Wait.

Let every other teacher lay down the law. Lay out their plans. Run through the rules.

On the first day of school — maybe even the first five days of school — just write. And talk. Let students drive the discussion. Let them ask questions. Give them a chance to be seen and heard and welcomed.

“Community before curriculum” Angela wrote in her last post, and I love her thinking there. I also think we can merge the two on the first day of school and lay a firm foundation for thinking and talking every day thereafter. We can jump start community and begin our curriculum as we put pen to the page and write.

Here’s my top five sources that beg a response and invite students to write on the first day of school (or at least the first week or so):

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

Give every student a notecard and ask them to watch and listen and then respond to the poem as a whole or to a line they particularly like or relate to. (I’ve learned some pretty heavy stuff from students over the years. So many of them can relate to the themes in this poem.)

  1. How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love by Jason Reynolds on PBS.

Give every student a sticky note and ask them to think about their reading lives. Then after they listen to Mr. Reynolds talk about reading, ask students to rate themselves. Are they readers eager for the pit bulls or for the puppies? Why? (I quickly find who my readers are and with whom I need to take on the challenge of helping them want to read.) Then for a little more of a challenge, on the flip side of the sticky, ask them to describe in poetic form their feelings about poetry. (You’ll learn even more.)

  1. Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska. Or the version here where Amanda Palmer reads the poem.

Give every student a copy of the poem. Then read the poem aloud and ask students to write their own list of possibilities. Their list can be straightforward, funny, or interesting things they want the class to know. (I wrote about how I used this poem to practice imitation a couple of years ago. It’s a great lesson and a great poem to revisit.)

  1. Three poems:

“My Name Is,” an excerpt from Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down. (If you haven’t read this book, oh, my goodness. It’s amazing!)

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

“Like You” by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman

Give students copies of all three poems and a notecard or piece of paper. Read them aloud. Ask students to read them again and then to write a response. They can respond to just one of the poems, a line from a poem, or anything the poems make them think or feel. There is no right or wrong. Just write your thinking. (This is always an interesting response, and it tells me a lot about how to help my students. Many of them will begin to write an analysis of one of the poems — or all three. Others understand that I am asking for a different kind of thinking, one that leads them into ideas for their own poems, stories, or essays.)

  1. Author Bios!

Give students access to books that have clever, witty, or interesting author bios. YA authors like Julie Murphy, Jeff Zentner, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, and Gina Damico are great ones, but there are many with a bit of quirk that will draw students in and spark their interest in reading these author’s books. Ask students to explore the author bios and then make a list of the books they think they’d like to explore this semester. Have them write the author’s names on sticky notes for you to put in your conferring notes.

If you want to take this author bio idea further — (this is my favorite):

Read several professional author bios aloud. Ask students what information is shared and make a T-chart that lists the what on the left, e.g., name, personal hobbies, awards won, where the author lives, who the author lives with, etc. Then, ask students to describe how this information is shared and add these craft moves to the right. This is the how. For example, short and sometimes incomplete sentences, lists, 3rd person, the author’s name is first, witty word choice, etc. Finally, ask students to write their own author bio while you write yours as a model. Encourage them to try to craft their bio to include ideas from both the what and the how side of the T-chart. Below are two of my students’ bios from this past year.

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

(The author bio idea is Lisa’s baby, and she wrote about it here after I wrote about it here. It’s still the best idea I have ever heard to begin students on their journey into developing their identities as readers and as writers. I’ve used this idea in a model lesson for every workshop I’ve facilitated this summer, so if you were there, feel free to share the author bio you wrote this summer in the comments. My newest one is below.)

I wish you happy reading and writing with your students this year. Please share your go to ideas for inviting students to write and build your community.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves books, pretending to garden, adolescents, and coconut cream pie — not necessarily in that order. She lives in North Texas with her dashing husband of 33 years, their twin-terror Shelties Mac and Des, and a not so loving love bird named Colonel Brandon. Amy spent the summer leading professional development in several districts across Texas and has grown especially fond of the Houston area. If only she could move… Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

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Guest Post by @cJezasaurusRex — An Open Letter from a Book Thief

Dear Ms. Gerdes,

You were the first teacher who taught me how/ when to properly use “Ms.” You taught me the power of a Phenomenal Woman. You taught me to value my mother. Big Time. And you taught me that reading is magic.

Ironically, you were my math teacher.

I wish I could say that you “gave” me books. The fact of the matter is that — I actually stole them. Actually. Literally. (Non?)Legitimately. STOLE A BOOK FROM YOU. Maybe even more than one. Probably, Likely so.

And all I can do right now is to apologize. Also–what is your address? Do you prefer USPS, FedEx, UPS, Armed Guard?

Just, please forgive me.

If you remember me at all, then you know (at 36) I would eventually be safely breaking every conventional rule in regards to punctuation and grammar. I hope you knew me well enough to know there is purpose behind my rebellion.

This all started more than 25 years ago. You were a Pioneer for Choice Reading time. And I know that I talked through most of those minutes, but I swear to you that I WAS SOAKING IT IN. Conduct marks set aside, I watched as you made time to focus on your own book during MATH!? I was, assuredly, a total A-Hole about it. Again, Sooooooo Soorrryyyy About that. But— I need to tell you that you are the ONE who (unknowingly) gave me a gift that I hope I am worthy enough to pass on to hundreds of other fellow humans.

I teach English to High School Students, and I flipping swear that 15-year-olds are and will remain the ultimate worst EVER. I love them. Every day. Not every second of every day… but mostly just every day. I look at them and am reminded of when I got sent to ISS or locked in a book closet by my English Teacher, and so it’s just effing fine by me that I threw my Pre-Law Degree out the window (wish the student loan attached would disappear too).

Since I’m always broke, and I’m the baby sibling, my Big siSTAR gave me her OLD Kindle about 12 years ago. Before I reset the account, I had to read ALL THE BOOKS she left on the account. One was Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.

For roughly 12 years, I’ve (kinda) done what I’ve been told by The System while I operated another system behind that closed door. I’ve tossed the curriculum back to my students like a contagious, hot potato. What. Do. YOU. Love. To. Read. As teachers, we often forget that it was NEVER about us, and it NEVER will be about us. And it has been my mission since my first year of teaching to throw my neck out on the guillotine to fight for that freedom.

Ms. Gerdes, I hope you are proud of the part you played in creating this monster.

But I stole your book. Now that I have built a classroom library of close to one thousand books, I know how pissed I get when my curation starts to disappear. Year after year, the carefully selected and bargained-for dwindles as quickly as cotton candy in a humid, Houston Heater. Some moments, I look at my shelves and wonder why my students can’t just return that damn book!

Today, while my Punky Brewster of a daughter was helping me pull all the donations we have for our town’s Little Free Library, she brought me Miracle at Clement’s Pond by Patricia Pendergraft. Your name written in permanent marker across the back.

miracle 1miracle-2.jpg

I’m. Melting. I am so sorry. I won’t even say that, “I can’t believe it.” I won’t even say that, “I’m so ashamed.” I can believe it. And I’m a little glad that I’m not ashamed.

You must have told me about the miracles found in books. Maybe, even this one in particular. Maybe I wasn’t ready, at 11 years old, to read what my teacher suggested–but I was ready to STEAL it so HARD! (I am sorry about that.) Mostly, at 36, I know what it feels like to bury my nose in words that make magic. The spell that is crafted by each stroke of the pen. To finish a novel and then hold it close to your heart with your eyes closed. Brimming with tears of empathy and connection. The feeling that next day of “Great Book Hangover” causing all other brain functions to fail.

This is the most life-altering lesson any teacher can leave behind.

I’m real sorry that I stole your book. (Plus, also I am sorry I was kind of a pain). The most sincere apology I can offer is that I am about to read this book, and I will NEVER forget Miracle at Clement’s Pond by Patricia Pendergraft–even if it sucks so hard. Plus, each time one of my books turns up missing, I promise to think of this apology. I promise to think of how pseudo- crappy kids can turn out to be alright humans. Or that ultra-rad kids can sometimes make terribly impulsive decisions. I promise. I promise. I promise. I stole something from you that is much bigger than a 242 page paperback from Scholastic.

I stole promise.

I hope you will forgive me. I hope you know that you truly changed my life. I hope to do the same for others.

Incredibly Sincerely Best of all Regards,

Crystal Jez

Crystal Jez has been teaching high school English in Texas for twelve years.  As curator of a chaotically color-coded classroom library, she is typically knee-deep in stacks of books.  When she isn’t reading or teaching, you can find her chasing chickens or saltwater kayak fishing.  Crystal is the wife of a super-hot guy and mom of three ultra-rad kids.

A Book for Women, Young and Old and In-between

I am always on the look out for books that will hook my readers and mentor texts that will inspire my writers.

But when I saw the title The Radical Element, 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other

My Radical Granddaughters

It’s never too early to give girls hope.

Dauntless Girls, I thought of my own three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters. (Well, not so much the debutantes, but definitely the daredevils and the dauntless.)

We need books where our girls see themselves –where they feel empowered to take on the world. In a brochure I got from @Candlewick, it states:

To respect yourself, to love yourself, should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced when you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting.

So today, I write to celebrate the book birthday of The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood.

Screen Shot 2018-03-13 at 12.54.36 PM

Jessica writes:

. . . Merriam-Webster’s definitions of radical include “very different from the usual or traditional” and “excellent, cool.” I like to think our heroines in these twelve short stories are both. Our radical girls are first- and second- generation immigrants. They are Mormon and Jewish, queer and questioning, wheelchair users and neurodivergent, Iranian- American and Latina and Black and biracial. They are funny and awkward and jealous and brave. They are spies and scholars and sitcom writers, printers’ apprentices and poker players, rockers and high-wire walkers. They are mundane and they are magical.

. . .

It has been my privilege to work with these eleven tremendously talented authors, some of whom are exploring pieces of their identities in fiction for the first time. I hope that in some small way The Radical Element can help forge greater empathy and a spirit of curiosity and inclusiveness. That, in reading about our radical girls, readers might begin to question why voices like these are so often missing from traditional history. They have always existed. Why have they been erased? How can we help boost these voices today?

I have only read a few of these stories so far, but they are a wonderful blend of adventure and courage.

Here’s what three of the 12 authors have to say about their stories:

From Dhonielle Clayton, “When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough”:

1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

 I wanted to write the untold stories of hidden black communities like the one in Martha’s Vineyard. I’m very fascinated with black communities that, against all odds and in the face of white terrorism, succeeded and built their own prosperous havens. Also, World War II America is glamorized in popular white American culture, however, we learn little about what non-white people were doing during this time period. 

 In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

I didn’t find as much as I wanted because historians focused on white communities and the war effort, leaving communities of color nearly erased. I had to rely on living family members that experienced this time period and a few primary sources detailing what life was like for black nurses in the 1940s. 

 How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

The one thing I trust is that black communities have been and will always be resourceful. Accustomed to being under siege, we have developed a system of support. I think I would’ve fared just fine. 

From Sara Farizan, “Take Me with U”:

1984: Boston, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

I’ve always been fascinated with the 1980’s. Even with all its faults, it is the period in time that stands out for me most in the 20th century. The music, the entertainment, the politics, the fear and suffering from the AIDS virus, the clothes, and the international events that people forget about like the Iran/Iraq war.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

It was hard to look back on footage from news broadcasts about the Iran/Iraq war. I felt embarrassed that it seemed this abstract thing for me when really my grandparents came to live with my family in the States during the year of 1987 to be on the safe side. I was very young, and didn’t think about why they had a year-long visit, but looking back, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for them. Fun not so heavy fact: Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Purple Rain came out in the summer of ’84. And so did I!

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

I think I would know all the pop culture references and my hair is already big and beautiful so that would work out great. My Pac-Man and Tetris game is strong, so I’d impress everyone at the arcade. However, I’m not down with shoulder pads and I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to come out of the closet back then.

From Mackenzi Lee, “You’re a Stranger Here”

1844: Nauvoo, Illinois

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

My story is set in the 1840s in Illinois and is about the Mormon exodus to Utah. I was raised Mormon, and these stories of the early days of the Church and the persecution they suffered were very common place. It took me a while to realize that, outside of my community, no one else knew these stories that were such a part of my cultural identity. I wanted to write about Mormons because its such a part of my history, and my identity, but also because, when I was a kid, there were no stories about Mormons. There are still no stories about Mormons–it’s a religious minority that has been largely left out in our current conversations about diversifying our narratives.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

Ack I wish I had a good answer here! But honestly not really–I already knew so much of what I wrote about because I’d gone to a Mormon church throughout my youth.

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

Badly! The Mormons went through so much for their faith, and as someone who has had a lot of grief as a result of the religion of her youth, I don’t know if I could have handled having a faith crisis AND being forced from my home multiple times because of that faith. Also cholera and heat stroke and all that handcart pulling nonsense is just. too. much. I didn’t survive the Oregon Trail computer game–no way I’d survive an actual trek.

Radical_Element_social_media_quotes_4

 

Amy Rasmussen teaches readers and writers at a large suburban high school in North TX. She loves to read and share all things books with her students. In regards to this post, Amy says, “It’s Spring Break for me, and I’ve been idle. Kinda. Three of my grandkids arrived at the spur of the moment, so I’ll use that as an excuse for posting late today.” Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

 

What Does it Mean to Read like a Writer?

It’s a startling reality, but many of my seniors do not know how to read like writers. I spend a good part of the beginning of a semester helping students look at how an author crafts a text.

This still surprises me.

The seniors I have in class this spring have all passed their state mandated English exams. A big chunk of these Texas state exams, both English I and English II, ask questions in the reading portion about author’s craft. (I haven’t explicitly studied the question stems in a few years, but I am guessing at least half.) In trying to get students to talk about the writer’s moves, most of my students get stuck talking about meaning.

Of course, meaning is important — but not when we are using a text to help us move as writers. In workshop lingo, we call this using mentor texts.

How do we learn to write anything well if we don’t study the work of writers who write well?

When I was first asked to write recommendation letters, I studied well-written recommendation letters. When I begin to write a grant proposal, I study how to write an effective grant proposal. When I need to write a speech, I study well-written inspiring speeches. There are solid examples for every kind of writing.

I want my students to know this. If they learn anything from me this spring, I hope it is this:

We learn how to write well by studying effective writing. To quote Kelly Gallagher: “Before you can film a dogfight, you have to know what one looks like. Before our students can write well in a given discourse, they need to see good writing in that discourse”. (Read Gallagher’s “Making the Most of Mentor Texts” for an excellent detailing of how.)

 

Yesterday Charles wrote about scaffolding a reading lesson. The same type of lesson, but with an eye toward reading like a writer, worked recently with my seniors.

It all started when I saw this tweet: TweetofGIFGuide

I thought: “Okay, this may be a relatively painless way to get my writers into writing. We will use this text as a mentor and write our own GIF guides.” (Quick change in lesson plans on the drive to work.)

First, we started with a conversation about GIFs. This NY Times Learning Lesson has some good questions. We wrote our thinking in our notebooks and shared in table groups. Then, not quite as planned, the conversation shifted to how to pronounce GIF. “Um, it’s JIFF, Mrs. Rass, the creator of them said so.”

In case you are wondering:  I think the creator is wrong. But, does it really matter? I just wanted my students to use GIFs as an entry point into writing using mentors.

To help students understand how to study a text for a writer’s moves, I copied the text into a document, and removed the images, so students would focus on the language. Then I crafted a list of questions. Taking a cue from Talk Read Talk Write by Nancy Motley, I cut the questions up and gave a set to each small group. They spent the better part of a class period studying the text and using the questions as a guide.

Later, we brainstormed topics we thought would work, eliminating some that were too broad, and discussing ones that would lend well to a how-to or informational type of writing. Students then completed this document, so they could see my expectations for the writing task, and I could approve their topics.

Students talked. They wrote. I taught mini-lessons on introductions and sentence structure. Students revised. Some taught themselves how to make GIFS.

Most surprised me with their finished GIF guides. Here’s a sampling of a few. (Disregard the citing of sources — that’s still on the Need-to-Learn list.)


Students, no matter their age, will write when we give them the tools and the time they need to be successful writers.

Sure, not all of my students produced solid writing — yet. But I am hopeful. We are only a about a month into the course, and most students now have a writing success story.

That confidence matters.

For a great read on helping students write, read “Children Can Write Authentically if We Help Them” by Donald Graves.

I’d love to know the fun or interesting mentor texts you use to get your students to take a chance on writing. Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. Go, Farmers! When she’s not skimming the news or her Twitter feed for mentor texts, she’s reading books to match with her readers or thinking about the rest she might get during spring break. Eight days, but who’s counting? Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk, and she invites you to follow this blog if you aren’t already.

 

 

 

What do colors have to do with teachers writing? Today, a lot.

When I read You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie, I knew I’d found mentor gold. Infused with stirring poetry, this memoir tells the story of Alexie’s less than ideal relationship with his mother and how he grieves the loss of her, what was, and what could have been.

I reached for this book Monday as I began a session of PD. On a whim, I flipped the pages and landed on the poem, “Ode to Gray,” thinking it may spark some kind of response in my audience. It’s simple enough. And lovely.

Ode to Gray

This isn’t the complete poem. I just wanted you to get the idea. There’s one more stanza. Really, get this book.

After I read the the poem aloud, I asked listening teachers to write in response.

“Think of a color, and write about that. Write your own poem, or a paragraph. Doesn’t matter. Just write about your color.”

After writing five minutes, which is rarely long enough, I asked these writers to read over their words and do a bit of revision, challenging them to add an appositive phrase somewhere in their writing. This is a directive I often use with students:  We write. We read our work. We revise, often with a singular purpose that ties to a specific skill or craft move.

I walked the room, peeking over shoulders, listening to conversations — and noticed about a third of the group didn’t write a thing. Funny how some teachers are so much like some students, huh?

Maybe they didn’t get the simple task. I guess that makes sense if they’ve never been asked to write like this. I do not think that’s the case though. I heard one too many sigh and saw one too many eye roll to know I wasn’t the first presenter to ask this group to think and write.

It didn’t matter. We cannot make people eat. We can keep inviting them to the table.

Writing teachers should be willing to write.

Accountability in RWWorkshop

Some teachers in that session wrote a lot — and they wrote beautifully. Adam showed me his piece about the color black. I should have asked for a copy. All I remember is the line “Little black lies.” It’s a great line.

Of all I wrote, one line holds a bit of promise:  “Orange, the color of sunsets, why are you so lonely?”

And then there’s Mary. She took that little quickwrite and turned it into something tender, touching, real. She published it on Facebook and said I could share it here:

An Ode to Red
Workshopping With Amy Rasmussen
1.15.18
Red is the fire of your cheeks as you demand to be heard in the morning before school, on a day I was supposed to get to sleep in late. Red is the fire of mine as I scream back, frustrated, unsure of how to solve this trembling toddler enigma. You want red grapes, I gave you purple. In your mind, they are not the same.
“What’s your favorite color, Mommy?” you ask. You expect an answer.
“Purple,” I say, knowing the question that comes next. We do this daily dance, aware of each other’s rhythm.
“And what else?” you ask.
“And orange.”
“That’s good, Mommy. Mine’s red. Red and blue. I love red and blue.”
Red is the sucker, no, the second sucker you negotiate for after getting your hair cut. Just one of the many tricks/bribes that I’ve learned along this short parenting trip we’re on together. Sticky, stained red lips, sticky, stained red teeth and sticky, stained red fingers.
“Go wash your hands before you hug me!” I yell as we walk in the house. “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”
Red is the color of the bath water after you dump the entire bottle of finger paint into the tub.
“Bubble bath!” you shriek excitedly, giggling, red steaks strung along the sides of the just-washed tub.
Red is my heart each time I leave, and each time I return. Red is the love. All of the love, engulfing me in flames.


I see red a bit differently today.

Thank you, Mary. My kids are grown, and now I get to watch them practice parenting. It’s hard and noble work, and you will feel every color of emotion — sometimes all on the same day and sometimes more than once. But it’s that “love. All the love” that turn these emotions into rainbows. And sometimes just writing about them helps us see every moment just a bit more clearly. Thank you.

In an article by Tim Gillespie, published on the National Writing Project website, he sums up what I believe and have experienced myself as a teacher writer.

Accountability in RWWorkshop (1)

Here’s the thing, you teachers who refused to even try:  It doesn’t matter if you think you can write. Just write.

What does matter is that our students see us working at it. Just like we must be readers in order to help our students find the “just right” book, we must be writers if we want to know the struggle our students face when writing.

We learn when we are vulnerable. We learn when we practice.

So I am challenging myself as much as I am challenging you:  Write beside your students more. Let them see your thoughts, your mistakes, your struggles. Ask them for feedback.

If I truly want a community, where we all work to grow as readers and writers, I need to do more to get us there.

Amy Rasmussen began writing in journals at age 8. In addition to this blog, she now writes in notebooks and on sticky notes. A lot of sticky notes. She also tries to write the assignments she gives her students. She wishes she would have had teachers who wrote with her, but she does not remember one K-12 teacher ever doing so. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk

What’s the right way to book club?

I belong to a lot of book clubs.  Probably too many, if I’m being perfectly honest.  This book club habit, though, allows me view a range of activities that can be considered “book club” and has opened up the way I teach book clubs in my classroom.

Book clubs are valuable experiences in and of themselves and there is no one right way to “book club.”   Book clubs enrich the lives of readers and allow students to see a thought about a book go somewhere new with a friend.

We’ve all had those moments where we think, “Sure, I could run this unit as a book club, but how do I know the students are really reading?”  As much as it pains me to write … we know the students aren’t reading regularly and consistently anyway.  Penny Kittle’s Book Love gives a detailed account of the various deceptions and misdirections that high school students regularly go through when they “fake read” assigned classics for English class.  The concern is most certainly worth raising, but we also shouldn’t assume we already have a perfect solution.

And book clubs are not a perfect solution, either.  They are messy, they take time, and sometimes the teaching we do in a book club unit is more the teaching of life and human relationships than of actual content and reading strategies.  But to hear students arguing the role of fate in one’s life?  To see a gaggle of girls attempt to stymie me with a version of The Trolley Problem that they developed based on a book club conversation?  To see students become obsessed with the Berlin Wall because of a book club?  To listen in on how students work out interpersonal conflicts when they think an adult isn’t listening?

I’m telling you, it’s all worth it.

While there are no right ways to book club, here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Give generous choice in partner selection.  I maintain final say over groups, but I encourage students to indicate the classmates they want to work with on a survey.  A colleague encouraged me to add a space for students to include a student that they haven’t worked with yet but would like to work with in order to encourage students to branch away from just indicating friends.  If students look forward to talking to their conversation partners, I find they are more likely to read and more likely to have better conversations about the book.
  • Steer students towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  One of the hidden beauties of book clubs is that I can steer groups towards books they might not otherwise pick up.  Groups of students are more likely to branch out of genre or try an author they hadn’t heard of before if they have a group to do it with.  I use this opportunity to introduce racially diverse authors and authors whose works are set in other countries.  It delights me to overhear students discuss the role of Choctaw culture in the magical realist tale How I Became a Ghost or mull over the levels of privilege in Piecing Me Together.
  • Provide activities to get conversation going and flowing.  One of my favorite activities from this past unit was having each student write down five significant events from the story, one event on each index card.  Then, in book club groups, students sorted their cards into piles and labeled their piles.  If you look at this picture, you’ll see that some of the piles from this student group are about setting (“orphanage”), others are about themes (“bravery,” “hope,” and “family”) and another is an observation about craft. This activity allows students to notice their noticings and realize they are not alone in their thoughts.
AmEOnceimage

Once by Morris Gleitzman is the first of an incredible series. Bonus to a book club choice!

If your school has a traditional canon-based curriculum in place, there are areas where I would see book clubs falling flat.  I would not assign Hamlet or Macbeth in book clubs.  (I might, however, think about assigning excerpts to small groups after some whole class teaching.)  I might instead start book clubs in a lower-stakes medium.  Maybe your book club reads poetry.  Maybe your club members are obsessed with the Dallas Cowboys and each member finds an article on the Cowboys to bring to the meeting.  Or maybe your book club loves superhero comics, and you read the new Superman comics together.

Wherever you are and whatever grade you teach, I encourage you to give book clubs a go.

What about you?  What are some of your favorite book club rules and routines? Or what are your book club roadblocks?

 

Amy Estersohn is a seventh grade English teacher in New York and is a halfway decent trivia team member.  She collects her book and graphic novel reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com

 

 

“Did you know Gucci has a book?” I do now.

“Hey, Miss, did you know Gucci has a book? I want to read it.”

“Really? You are telling me you actually want to read book?”

“Yeah, but only that one.”

I go to my computer, click on Amazon, and look for a new book by Gucci. I find:

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These cannot be the books Daniel is talking about. I know this kid. He was in my junior English class last year — part of the class with the tissue issue, and now I had him as a senior.

“How do you know Gucci has a book?” I asked.

“I saw it on his Instagram,” Daniel said, showing me his phone.

Dear Reader, you are ahead of me on this, aren’t you?

I admit to being on the edge of old. I had no idea before this conversation with this student that his Gucci was not handbags and luxury leather goods. Because Daniel tends to mumble, it took me a while to figure out he was referring to Gucci Mane.

Daniel’s favorite rapper had a new book.

So I bought it.

When I first met Daniel, we had trouble. He sat in the back of the room, fake reading, sleeping, tossing pencils, goofing off so others laughed. I moved him to the front, and he slid low in his chair and sulked. Every day. And every day when I conferred with readers, I leaned over Daniel’s shoulder and asked what I could do to help him want to be a part of my class.

Eventually, he responded. He told me he’d read Gary Soto’s books in 10th grade. I wasn’t sure I could believe him, fake-reading tough guy and all, but I passed him the two Soto books I have in my library. He read them both.

Then, he started reading Matt de la Pena’s books. Ball Don’t Lie took Daniel a long time to get through, but he finished it and started Mexican Whiteboy. I’m pretty sure he read four books that semester — more than he’d ever read in his 16 years.

In conferences I asked Daniel about his life outside of school. He told me he wanted to work on cars like his brother and that he took the bus to the career center after my class every day, so he could take courses in auto mechanics. Based on our conversations, I do not think another general ed teacher had ever talked to this young man about what mattered to him:  cars.

hattie-teacher-student-relationships

Source: Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses On Achievement. Routledge.

In education, we hear about the importance of building relationships a lot, and my experience with Daniel is a testament to the power of taking the time to get to know a student. Because he knew I cared, Daniel started to care about his English class. He began asking for help and coming to tutorials. He started showing up in spirit and not just as a warm body slumped in a chair. He felt like he belonged.

Did Daniel excel? Not exactly. But he passed, which was something a bit surprising to both of us after his I’m-too-cool-for-school-to-do-anything rocky start.

Flash forward to this year. I moved to senior English, and Daniel got his original schedule changed so he could be in my class. He walked in my room the first day with the same too-cool attitude. (Appearances are everything, and I know this game.) Again, I gently started conversations.

When Daniel scored an A on his first essay, he pretty much called me a liar. On his

Reading Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Reading Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

next essay, he told me he stayed up all night so his brother could help him, so he wouldn’t show up to class empty handed. When we did a project on careers, and he presented to the class, Daniel spoke with confidence and detail about the field of auto mechanics. He’s read at least two books this fall and a lot of articles in The Wall Street Journal. This past Friday he came to tutorials for an hour, so I could review what he needed to do to pass his last state exam so he can graduate this spring. I don’t know if he will, but I sure hope so.

 

There are thousands of young men like Daniel in our schools. I wonder if teachers have the time, resources, and energy to give them the attention they need. There are 28 students in Daniel’s class this year. There were 32 in his class last fall.

There is one of me.

I cannot help but think of the famous starfish story. You know the one that ends with “I made a difference to that one.” I know I’ve made a difference to Daniel. I still call him a punk. He still mumbles when he talks to me. But he knows I like him. I really like him. And he even let me interview him, so you can like him, too. (The smile at the end is the best part.)

Choice matters! If you are reading this post, you probably already believe that as much as I do. I hope you do. Daniel’s story is not unique. We make a difference to many young people just like him when we open spaces for talk, engage in real conversations about what matters to them, and allow for self-selected reading in our instruction.

I would love to hear the stories of your Daniels. Please share in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language at a large senior high school in North Texas. She spends a ton of money on books with the hope of helping every child develop as a reader. And while she does not listen to rap, she does learn a lot from those who do. Follow her @amyrass 

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