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Category Archives: Boys & Literacy

A Little Learning with Big Outcomes

Last week was tough. If you teach in TX, you probably know what I mean.

December means STAAR/EOC testing, and while I teach readers and writers in 11th and 12th grade English classes at a large senior high school, many of my students carry the label of “re-tester.” (It’s an ugly label; isn’t it?)

All week students who have yet to successfully pass all five exams required to graduate filed into testing rooms to try again. This meant many disruptions for students not testing.

All week the English hall, along with other rooms, became the testing center. Classes displaced. Students out of comfort zones. Just a bit of chaos.

We know how well this works for learning.

In an effort to get my students settled in, back in our classroom and back in our routine

Julian shares his haiku

Julian sharing his haiku

of workshop, we played with words.

Testing disrupted our writing project, a series of letters in a variety of forms with a variety of tones, all related to a self-selected thematic link. We needed a revision workshop, but my seniors were not having it. With just 10.5 days until winter break, plus 8.5 until the end of term, many are already playing XBox and watching Netflix in their heads. (Me, too, but at least I’m fighting it.)

Since we read our choice books at the beginning of every class period, and I work daily to hold students who have not read a book on their own throughout high school accountable, I am constantly trying something new.  Today the new turned pretty cool.

We wrote book reviews in the form of haiku.

The tremendous thinking about word choice — well, it was kind of magical. (If only students would always think about word choice with such care.) Here’s a sampling of our book review poetry:

A book can contain

many life lessons that we

can use in our lives.

~Cesar Perez

The Playbook by Kwame Alexander

Are her thoughts her own

or does the tightening coil

control her whole being?

~Maria Cruz

Turtles all the Way Down by John Green

my life was stolen

but after 18 years I

got to hug my mom

~Grace Foust

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

being arrested

for helping his ex-girlfriend

Being black is hard.

~Di’Myrius Owens

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

her eyes captured me

I lost myself in her heart

Owned me from the start

~Axel Ibarra

The Oxygen Thief by Anonymous

Looking for a path

Twisted and in need of help

How do I escape?

~Jesse Borjas

Dark Dude  by Oscar Hijuelos

Running for freedom

Garret escapes boot camp

Fear, risk run with him

~Cris Velasquez

Boot Camp by Todd Strasser

Black lives do matter.

Police brutality sucks.

assume all black steal

~Alondra Rosales

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely

The first hand account

No excuses for mistakes

Kill Osama Bin

~McKenzie Bowie

No Easy Day by Mark Owen

This simple activity led to a complex discussion about the power of words and why we need to revise our writing in order to craft with purpose. We discussed adding figurative language, creating imagery, using complex sentences. I taught how to write appositive phrases, a grammar move my students did not know.

And as students moved into their writing groups, they talked about their plans for revision. Teaching writers does not get much better than that.

When our students take on the identify of writers, they talk like writers, and they write with purpose — choosing words and phrases and making moves like real writers do.

Side note:  Some of my students produces haikus that revealed needs in their reading lives. For example, one student wrote that Fahrenheit 451 was set in WWII, and another showed confusion in the change of point of view in All American Boys. Their book review haikus gave me an action plan for reading conferences. Bonus!

Amy Rasmussen teaches senior English and AP English Lang & Comp in North TX. She loves to get her students talking about the things that matter to them. She also loves to get them talking about the things that matter to us all:  books and words and poetry and writing and serving people everywhere. Follow her @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

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“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 

18 Quotes & a Call for Connection

We all know the value of mentor texts. We use them for read alouds, to model thinking, to dig deep and find meaning, to teach an author’s moves, sentence structure, and more. Some of us collect them, storing them safely among other valuable collections.  We keep a stash for studying craft, earmarking books in the hopes of remembering why we saved that page for later.

I have 11.8K tweets “liked” –many saved to read later and think about how I can share them with my readers and writers. I am a constant planner.

I also have a constant need for connection and a way to grow. Maybe that’s why Twitter swallowed me when I first signed on in 2011. Even my children, teenagers then, complained I was “always on the iPad.”

Sometimes it helps to take a step back. Evaluate our surroundings. Get a better grip.

Awhile ago I learned a thing or two about myself. I learned what drives me. Tony Robbins has a TED Talk called Why We Do What We Do I found helpful, as did this quiz What is your driving force? (I’ve shared both with students, and we’ve had interesting and insightful conversations.)

My driving needs are connection and growth. No wonder I have an obsession with mentors. No wonder I like to write and share what I learn and how I teach. No wonder I like you to read this blog and to share what you learn and how you teach. You are my Personal Learning Connection.

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Sometimes teachers get lucky. We work in departments that feed our needs. We find colleagues in Facebook groups and Twitter feeds. We reach out to living mentor texts (Shana coined that term a few years ago) who help us reach higher toward the goals we set for ourselves.

I am blessed to have many living mentor texts. My colleagues on this blog for sure. (We have an ongoing WhatsApp chat that keeps us grounded and sane. Mostly.) And many of you readers who’ve reached out with questions in emails, trusting that I might have answers for your questions. You’ve mentored me, too.

I am blessed to call Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller both friends and mentors. They’ve shaped me in too many ways to say. There’s Katie Wood Ray and Tom Romano (thanks to Shana’s friendship) who’ve shared experiences and stories over meals at NCTE. There’s all the teacher-writers of the stacks of professional books that weigh down the shelves nearest my desk in my classroom and my bed. They mentor with each page.

And there’s Tom Newkirk — who, as Penny put it, is “the smartest man I know.” I met Tom at the UNH Literacy Institute when Shana, Jackie, and I took his class on Boys and Literacy. He is caring, kind, and oh, so brilliant. When I read his books, I feel his passion for literacy and learning — and I feel smarter.

I wrote last week about teaching as if teaching is story, thoughts that sparked while reading Minds Made for Stories. The sparks continue.

Three Teachers Talk will present at NCTE on Friday, November 17 at 12:30 pm. We titled our session: “Reclaiming Narrative and Amplifying Our Voices: Using Story to Invite Fearless Inquiry and Intellectual Challenge for Our Students and Ourselves.” Tom Newkirk is our chair. How amazing is that?

In preparation for our our presentation, Tom’s agreed to join us for the first ever #3TTchat on Twitter, Monday, October 30 at 8ET/7CT. We will discuss the power of narrative in all types of writing as explained in Minds Made for Stories — and Tom’s new book Embarrassment:  And the Emotional Underlife of Learning

I pulled some quotes from Minds Made for Stories last night in prep for that chat. I think you’ll see the genius in Tom’s thinking and what it can do for us as reading and writing teachers. I thank Tom, a true living mentor text, for shifting my thinking about the way I talk about writing with my students, the way I view writing with my students. The way I teach writing.

From Part I of Minds Made for Stories:

“[Narrative] is the “mother of all modes,” a powerful and innate form of understanding” (6).

“Narrative is there to help us “compose” ourselves when we meet difficulty or loss. It is there to ground abstract ideas, to help us see the pattern in a set of numerical data, to illuminate the human consequences of political action. It is home base” (5).

“Photosynthesis is a story; climate change is a story; cancer is a story, with antecedents and consequences. To the extent these phenomena can be told as stories, readers will have a better chance of taking in the information” (11).

“We don’t read extended texts through sheer grit, but we are carried along by some pattern the writer creates. Even if our goal is to learn information, we don’t do that well if that information is not connected in some way — and as humans the connection we crave is narrative” (13).

“. . . the ‘hamburger’ format with the opening and closing paragraphs being the two buns and the body being the meat. . . is a disservice to students, and to nonfiction writing, but also an insult to hamburgers. . .” (16).

“. . . when we strip human motives from our teaching, I suspect we make learning harder and not easier” (17).

“Nonfiction. . .is all about moves, motion through time. Not static structures” (17).

“Even writing that takes a form we would not call narrative (e.g., the lab report) still is built on narrative, a causal understanding of the world that is as basic to us as, well, our intestines. This claim is true for even the most specialized academic writing; even research reports must tell a story” (19).

“[Narrative] is part of our deep structure as human beings” (27).

“If we view [narrative] as a deep structure of thinking and understanding, it affects all discourse and plays a much bigger role; we have literary minds, primed for story” (28)

“Yes, we need to teach students the conventions of various genres, and we can’t assume that because they can read and write fictional stories or autobiographical pieces that they can write arguments or reports. Only a magician would think that. But it does mean that the narrative thread, the anecdote, the story of human interest, the apt metaphor are crucial tools in all forms of discourse — as they speak to our need for causality and story. They form a deep structure” (28).

“Narrative is not a type of writing, or not merely a type of writing. It has deeper roots than that. It is a property of mind, an innate and indispensable form of understanding, as instinctive as our fear of falling, as our need for human company. Good writers know that and construct plots–itches to be scratched–that sustain us as readers. We are always asking, “What’s the story?” (34).

#3TTchat-2

“Voice is a constant, a human presence, a sensibility, a character, a narrator and guide” (38).

“Openings should be read very slowly, reread if possible. So much is happening. So many commitments are being made–which is why writers often find them so nerve-racking to write. Openings establish the topic, suggest the problem to be examined, convey sense of the narration and tone of the piece, risking at any millisecond that the reader will go elsewhere” (42).

“. . .in all analytical writing there needs to be conflicting perspectives, contending solutions, weaknesses and strengths, even good guys and bad guys. If these positions can be attached to spokespersons, so much the better. Writing is dialogic, involving multiple voices, orchestrated by the author. To comprehend a text is to be attuned to this conflict” (42).

#3TTchat-3

“I am not contending that literary analysis or argument looks like narrative fiction. But arguments that sustain reading must have a dramatic core, a plot. Like a good piece of music, there needs to a be a pattern of tension and resolution, problem and solution, anticipation and fulfillment. When done well, the sensation of reading doesn’t feel like we are working in a tightly contained form, tyrannized by a thesis, the stern father who sits at the head of the table and rules over all. Rather, we feel a mind at work; the sensation is of a journey that may take us to a thesis but invites new questions along the way” (49).


I hope you will join us in our Twitter chat next Monday. Let’s value our connections and share our stories as teachers, writers, and individuals striving to learn and grow and change for the betterment of our students and ourselves. Let’s celebrate the learning we’ve experienced with our students this fall.

We need to be living mentor texts for one another.

This work is hard. When we connect and share, we make it easier.

We already know it is worth it.

Amy Rasmussen connects with friends on Twitter @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk and on Facebook and Instagram. She’d also like to connect her students’ blogs to yours — wouldn’t it be great if they read and commented on each others’ writing? (Email amyprasmussen@yahoo.com if interested.) Amy teaches senior English and AP Language at a large senior high school in Lewisville, TX (Go Farmers!). 

We Remember Our Students; They Remember Us, Too

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Bryce photobombing me in 2014

Sometimes I go months without seeing any of my former students. Then, I’ll venture to the grocery store at 5 pm on a Tuesday and see six of them in 15 minutes.

Sometimes I worry about the ones I never bump into. How are they doing? Are they okay? I wonder.

Bryce is one of those students I worry and wonder about. I had him for two years, and he made incredible progress from a squirrelly junior who couldn’t sit still in his desk, to a serious senior who devoured first graphic novels, then dystopian classics. He wrote pages of essays I couldn’t get him to care about, then progressed to delivering measured country wisdom.

Bryce, along with his class, wasn’t a kid you could easily forget–he was part of my MTEC crew, the rowdy country boys who attended our high school for half a day and worked on their vocational certifications for the rest. Bryce and his pals Troy and Bull leapt at the chance to build my bookshelves rather than read books, give my husband advice on how to fix up the ’92 Bronco he bought rather than write poetry, or sneak their dip spit into Gatorade bottles rather than revise an essay.

So, when my husband, a spine surgeon, saw Bryce come into the ER one evening, he knew who he was. He knew his face from his visits to my classroom; he knew his personality from my stories over the dinner table; he knew my frustration as I lamented over trying to find him a book to read. He knew what that kid meant to me, and he also knew he wasn’t allowed to tell me about the horrific car crash it was evident Bryce had just been in.

But the news was all over social media–Bryce had flipped his Jeep over an embankment, rolled down a hill, and broken his spine in several places. I knew that since my husband was on call, he’d be the one taking care of Bryce, fixing his shattered bones. I also knew that Bryce wouldn’t be returning to school this year, that he’d be assigned to homebound instruction, and that not just anyone would be able to shepherd him through his classes.

So I was worried right away–worried that for all of Bryce’s progress, this accident outside the classroom would erase the growth he’d achieved so painfully, in an equally painful way. Would he walk again? Would he be himself after rolling his prized Jeep down one of our state’s famous country roads? Would he finish his junior year classes successfully and stay on track to graduate?

Since I had an in with his doctor, I got to visit Bryce in the hospital the day after his surgery. He wasn’t paralyzed, but he’d have a long road to recovery–and to a successful finish to his school year.

A week later, Bryce was at home, in a back brace, scars all over his body, and his face still bruised and battered. I was there too, my arms filled with binders full of his assignments from all six of his classes. His mom, whom I’d met when I visited the hospital, brewed me coffee in the kitchen and sorted out the pills Bryce needed to take every afternoon. He blushed when she had to help him use the restroom, or nagged him to get out of his recliner and take a walk, or shuffled the thick stack of hospital bills I saw on their kitchen counter.

For three months, this was our routine–I’d arrive at Bryce’s house two afternoons per week with all of his homework and gently prod him through it. I’d bring him Gatorade and Cheetos from the gas station on the way to his house to help bribe him through the math and history assignments he hated. Science, he enjoyed, and his vocational class homework never failed to bring a smile to his face. But it took him twice as long to finish all of his required work–between his concussion and injuries, his fear about getting hurt again if he were to return to school, and the exhaustion brought on by physical therapy and trauma, it was no wonder he had trouble concentrating.

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Bryce included a photo of his totaled Jeep in his MGP

But I knew that English would be a tough subject to approach. I wanted Bryce reading and writing meaningfully–frequently and deeply enough for the acts to be therapeutic.  Outside the workshop community of our classroom, it was harder to guide him toward this kind of cathartic literacy, but we got there.

By the end of the semester, he’d read nine books with damaged protagonists, written poetry about how his accident had created new gratitude for his mother and sister, and crafted a multigenre paper about his accident called “Anything With Wheels Will Cost You.”

 

My Jeep is my peace keeper. It’s the thing to let me get rid of reality. Some people have books, walks, or something else, and I have riding. No one is able to get ahold of you and all it is, is you and the woods and the roads.

After reading that line from his MGP, I knew he’d get another fast car, and he did. By the next year, he had new wheels and a new attitude. I got to have him in class again. He was a different kid–subdued, quiet, focused. He worked just as hard in class as he did outside of school, holding down two jobs to be able to buy a new vehicle so he could feel like his old self again. He flew largely under the radar in my 28-person class, graduated in the spring, and finished his vocational certification.

img_2433.pngI hadn’t seen Bryce in over a year, but had wondered what became of him. Then, last week, I spied him pulling out of a gas station. He was easy to spot, driving a truly West Virginia tricked-out truck, complete with lift kit, muddin’ tires, and chrome roll bars. His hair was longer, and he was smoking a cigarette. I pulled out my phone, wondering if I still had his number, and I did.

His reply to my message makes me continue to worry and wonder about him, perhaps more than I did before I’d seen him.

Life after high school isn’t easy for any of our students. When they leave our classrooms and we continue to worry about them, it’s for good reason–the transition from a “much simpler” time to the responsibilities of adulthood is tough for anyone.

But they remember what we teach. Maybe they don’t remember things like apostrophe use, but they remember that we care, that our concern for them goes beyond whether they can read and write well, and into whether they can live well beyond our classrooms.

I know you have kids you’ll never forget, too. And I know they haven’t forgotten you, either. We remember them; they remember us. Let’s teach them what’s worth remembering.

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a hardworking surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, Reese Puffs (this week), 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.

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

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!

Stop Teaching. I’m reading.

SCENE: My classroom

 

AMY is holding onto a clipboard and attempting to drink from a thermos of coffee while still Looking Important.  She surveys the room of readers and stops at a student who has read an uncharacteristically large amount from the past day.  She stops at the student’s desk.

 

AMY: How’d you do that?

 

STUDENT looks up from book.

 

STUDENT: Do what?

 

AMY: You know, how did you read 50 pages since the last time I saw you?

 

STUDENT (shrugs): I don’t know.  I just did.

 

STUDENT returns to book.

 

Some teachers might find exchanges like these evidence of an unsuccessful conference with an uncommunicative student. Some teachers might want to go into further questioning: “Well, when did start reading?  How long did you read?  Where were you? Are you on your way to achieving a reading goal?” but it’s easy for that kind of reading conference to quickly turn into an episode of Law and Order: Minors After Midnight pretty quickly.

 

Instead, I tend to find conferences like these home run victories.  This student is looking to end this conversation so that he can get back into reading.  Isn’t that the best compliment of all?

When-do-we-need-to-stop

Granted, if every interaction with the student went like the above, I’d probe further.  However, I look for three key ingredients when I evaluate these kinds of exchanges:

  1. Is this student reading at an increased volume than he or she usually does?  
  2. What’s the student’s body language like before the conference?  Is it a “please don’t talk to me right now” vibe?
  3. Does the student act unsurprised by the idea that he or she read a lot?  

 

If the answer to the three above questions is “yes,” I score that conference as a major reading victory, because:

  1. I already de-incentivize book volume and page count.  Students gain no reward for claiming they have read 20 pages when really they have read 2.  This way, I trust when I see students reading more that that reading is their honest performance.
  2. Students should like reading more than they like talking to us.
  3. The student might not be able to accurately recall his or her extended reading period because he or she entered a state of flow.  I don’t know how I managed to watch three episodes back-to-back of Survivor over the weekend.   Students who don’t know how they managed to read a lot might not know because they entered a state of flow.

 

Okay, so where do you teach this reader in future conferences?  They can’t all be this non-verbal.

 

  1. Use this book as a benchmark of reading excellence for that student.  Ask that student in a few months, “How does the book you are in right now compare to your experience of reading book XYZ?”
  2. Help the student find more books like it using tools like Amazon.com, goodreads, or by talking to other readers. I am always amazed at how few students know how to look up another book by the same author.
  3. Ask the student what mattered to them most about the experience of reading the book.  Ask about the book, but ask about their feelings while reading, too.  Keep in mind that for some readers a distinctive literary pattern emerges across their reading — say, books about kids with cancer, books about troubled homes, books about the apocalypse, books with strong female characters battling high school drama.   For others, it might be about feelings — they liked or disliked a character, they enjoyed the world the author built for them, etc.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE Gallo Grant.  And she hates being interrupted in the middle of a good book.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MsE.

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