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Category Archives: Boys & Literacy

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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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?

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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.

A Question/Response to Whole Class Novels: This time for ESL

Recently, I found this in my inbox:

Hi Amy –

We exchanged messages a couple of years ago when I was at a different school, discussing largely AP students, if I recall.

Last summer, my husband and I moved, and I am in a new district with new “clientele,” so to speak. We are finishing Neverwhere, which went over better than I thought it would with this extremely reluctant bunch of readers. I won grant money and purchased a class set of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk Home, largely because I remembered that you recommended it.

Here is what I’m up against: I have regular seniors, most of whom are ESL. Most of my little darlings are low level and struggle with reading. Because I only have one class set for three classes of kids, we do some independent reading in class, and then we take turns reading it out loud. I pause them A LOT because I have to “interpret” what we read – especially when we read Othello, and even with Neverwhere. They have reading projects and journal prompts, we have class discussions.

But I feel like I’m failing them somehow. That I’m not doing enough.

If you have any resources for Billy Lynn that you can share, I would appreciate it. I’m questioning whether this is the right book to read with them, but since I have a good number who want to go into the military upon graduation, I think maybe I can grab those kids and then others will follow.

Thank you so much for any guidance you can provide.


A while ago, I wrote about Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk in two different posts. Once about how I added it to my book club list and loved the author’s craft and the other an excerpt for a craft study. I have never read this book with students as a whole class novel. I’ve never even been very successful in getting a lot of students to read it for their book clubs.

Just because I love a book, bless it, use a passage out of it, doesn’t mean my students will want to read it, too. That is the beauty of choice. It is also sometimes the struggle.

Am I surprised more students do not choose this book? Yes. Dallas Cowboys after all. But I get why they don’t — many of my students do not want to read books that are set so close to come — they cannot wait to get out of here. But that’s a post for another day.

This is my response to my teacher-friend’s email:

Hello,

Thanks for reaching out. I hope your move has proved a positive one. I know it is hard to change districts and schools.

Regarding Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk:  While I loved the book when I read it and found several passages I could use to study author’s craft with my students, I have never taught it as a whole class novel. So — I do not have any resources that go along with this book. I do have a few ideas that may help liven up your students experience with it though.

Teaching second language learners can be hard, especially seniors who want to check out of the learning so early. Pulling from my ESL training and my own experiences with students similar to those you describe, I’d probably do a few things, which you may already be doing.

1. Small discussion groups. Just like I do book clubs, I’d divide my students up into small groups. I’d give each group a short list of open-ended questions that relate to my skills-focus for choosing this book (theme, plot, characterization, etc), and I’d model how a discussion about literature might go — similar to how my friends and I talk about books in our book club. We would talk a lot. You mentioned that you already do journal prompts. I’d be sure that students write their thinking in response to these prompts before these discussions. Activate the thinking power.

2. Quickwrites. Besides journal prompts, I’d ask students to think about and write in

dallas_cowboys_stadium_05_by_jonzicow

jonzicow.deviantart.com

response to topics thematically related to the book. I might show a photo of Dallas Cowboys Stadium and ask students to think about attending a game there. What does it look like on the inside, what does it smell like during a big game, how many people work there? I may find data about how much the stadium cost, how many seats it has, something about the huge jumbotron. I might find a sports interview clip filmed within the stadium and ask students to watch it and respond to some component of the interview. Maybe I’d find a video of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders (try outs, community service — not just game shots) and ask students to respond somehow. All these things will helps students understand and visualize the setting.

iraq-war

contempissues.wikispaces.com

3. Other Visuals. ESL students needs lots of them. And if we want students to understand more complex texts, we must give them the background knowledge needed to stick the new learning to. (I often forget this.) So — I’d use photos of young soldiers in war zones, as buddies, delivering first aid. I’d be sure my students know where Iraq is on a world map. I’d help them understand the idea of a “reality TV show” so they could visualize what this company of soldiers is dealing with at the stadium that day. This ties in to the multiple conflicts the book addresses:  Billy’s individual conflict — “Should I stay or should I go” and the conflict with the TV show and the “rich” businessmen-type attitudes.

4. Movie clips. I am not always a fan of using movies in class, but this might be a great opportunity to compare scenes in the book with scenes in the film. What is similar? What is different? Why do the makers of the movie make the choices they do? Do they keep the integrity of the book?

5. Craft studies. I’d pull significant passages from the book to study for specific reading and writing skills — again trying back to why I chose this book for a whole class read in the first place. If my focus is theme, I’d find passages we can read and determine themes that relate to the over-all theme. If I’m using the novel to become better writers, I’d pull passages where the author does something interesting with language. We’d study the passage. Maybe write our own passage, mirroring what the author did.

Finally, I’d be okay with not reading the whole of the book. When I plan lessons, I focus on the skills [needed to get to the endgame whatever that may be for the unit.] Once I’m sure I’ve covered the learning targets, and students have learned what they needed to by reading this book, I’d be okay giving students the option to read the rest of the novel on their own.

When we focus on teaching a book instead of teaching the reader/writer, we can often get bogged down. I am in no way saying this is you, but it is a whole lot of teachers on my own campus and in schools where I conduct PD. We must focus on the learner and not the book. The best way I know how to do that is with a focus on skills:  modeling, mini-lessons, reading, writing, talking. A lot.

I hope you find these ideas helpful. I would love to know how your experience with Billy Lynn plays out.

Best blessings,

Amy

What ideas would you add to help a class of primarily English Language Learning students read and comprehend a whole class text? Please add your comments.

Amy Rasmussen teaches AP English Lang & Comp at Lewisville HS in North TX. She’s enjoyed the semester watching her student teacher face Teenage Angst, but he is good, very, very good, and will be a great teacher. Her next adventure is helping Mr. G build his classroom library. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass or @3TeachersTalk

Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

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Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

Window, Mirrors, and Gigantic Doors: Inviting Sound into Uneasy Silences

For weeks I’ve worked on a list of books to use for book clubs in our junior English classes. I believe that students must have options that challenge, yet engage, and allow them to see themselves and/or others within the pages. It’s that whole windows and mirrors and doors analogy. Jillian Heise describes it well in this post. I’ll just quote a part that struck me:

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop originated the idea that many now reference. She talks about windows as “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” And about mirrors, “…we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” But she also talks about sliding glass doors which “readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” The thing is, it’s the third part of it, the sliding glass door that seems to often be left out, but is perhaps the most important part – it’s the part that, in my interpretation, allows us to step into those other worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book – and isn’t that the power of reading? Being able to develop empathy, understanding, new perspectives by living in someone else’s shoes for a short time. Especially for books as powerful as the ones being written about these real issues that are affecting kids in their lives today, this mirror, window, sliding door access becomes even more important for them to see they have a place in our society, no matter what perspective they may bring.”

I’d like to offer an addition, not just sliding glass doors that  “allow us to step into those 8124672460_6b6f1ef826_zother worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book,” although that interpretation is certainly vital to developing readers who love books and to gaining empathy.

What about other doors — like the kinds we have to push or pull to get through — the doors that make us work: cathedral doors, fortress doors, iron doors, or doors with scary knockers? These doors require effort. These doors may make us uncomfortable. And sometimes they require courage.

Some books can change us if we view them this way. They can change our students. And I’m not just talking about lexile levels, or complexity of ideas. I am talking about content. The content that exposes our flaws and weaknesses, the content that pushes our thinking, moves us out of our comfort zones, and makes us face, as Dr. Kim Parker puts it, “the lived experience of so many folks of color in this country.”

I am a white woman who teaches students of color. I grew up in a middle class family with conservative ideals. I go to church regularly, and I practice my religion. I had parents who were married for 55 years and taught me the value of hard work, education, and persistence. I am different from most of the students in my classroom. I enjoy a privilege in this country most of them have never experienced.

So what does this have to do with doors?

I choose the big ones.

Awhile ago I conducted a PD session with a group of teachers, mostly white women who like me teach mostly students of color. I showed some of the spoken word videos I use with my students:  “Spelling Father” by Marshall Davis-Jones and “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beatty. I shared articles about undocumented immigrants and Syrian refugees. I read an except from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi where a character’s wife is kidnapped and he desperately tries to find her, showing her picture around the streets, and finally being accosted by a policeman after he accidentally brushes into a white woman. The policeman rips up the man’s only picture of his 8-months-pregnant wife. The year:  pre-Civil War.

We viewed and read texts. We wrote quickwrites and analytical responses. We discussed author’s craft and studied the moves the writers make to create meaning. Everyone read. Everyone wrote. Everyone engaged in the learning.

Later, the conversation turned to engagement, and I asked the questions:  “What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives?”

I gave them time to talk, and I wandered the room, listening in to table discussions. I heard some valuable exchanges, but I also heard: “Oh, I don’t even go there. I’d lose control.”

Hmm.

How will we ever change as a society if we don’t ever go there? How will our students, no matter their color, ever learn to talk about tender and sizzling issues, ever learn to deal or challenge or change them, if their teachers never go there?

We cannot make excuses. We have to invite the hard topics into our classrooms. We have to provide books that are windows, mirrors, sliding doors, and gigantic wooden ones. Not only for the sake of the students we teach but for our profession.

How will we ever have more teachers of color if our students of color do not have better experiences in their English classes?

At NCTE last November, I met Dr. Kim Parker in person for the first time. She read her credo and she sealed a place in my heart with her sincere desire to do right by the students in her care. I share her credo here because it so closely echoes my own. I don’t think she’ll mind:

Ze’Voun tells me that he never knew that reading books could matter so much, could be so enjoyable. He is a young man who is Black, brilliant, and bored. He is a writer and a reader for whom schools seem to be increasingly less designed. When he disappears from my class without any explanation, I learn, a few weeks later, that he has been assigned to an out of school placement program, joining other boys who are–likely–as Black, brilliant, and bored as he.

I believe in rage, and I believe in action. I believe in a world where staying woke matters.  

My most essential work is making classrooms spaces where kids like Ze’Voun can read and write in ways that matter to them–from diss tracks; to letters to the local police department reminding them that Black Lives Matter, too, and that wearing their hoodies is not a crime; to Tweets to favorite authors thanking them for books that are just for him; to books that affirm, reflect, and extend his existence as a brilliant Black boy. Opening up spaces inside classrooms where they can speak a variety of Englishes as they explore the origins of Ebonics, where they can engage and delight with canonical and multicultural texts and write about their understandings, and where they are creators of texts that validate and stretch their identities is some of “the work my soul must have.”

Though Ze’Voun never returned, I continue to hold space in my classroom for other young people who have similar needs and desires, who are hungry for the diverse texts that reach them. I continue to hold on to a belief, and a dream, that the work I do must be as diverse as the students I teach. As escapist, as validating, as powerful as the texts they read. As whole, as free, as happy as we all wish, hope, and need to be.

This what I’ve dubbed Right Now Literacy. We have to give every student the commitment, resources, and opportunities they need to learn the reading and writing skills they need right now, to live and thrive in the world we are in right now.

Dear reader, I ask you the same questions I asked those teachers at that PD:  What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives? 

Please answer in the comments. Let’s share our best practices and best resources for pushing ourselves and our students through the doors that can change us at the core. (And next week I’ll try to remember to share my new book club lists.)

FTC guideline

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

It’s the end of our nine weeks. Well, kinda. I have one class of English 3 students that are at midterm since they are on accelerated block, and I’ve got two classes of AP English Lang who I share with AVID every other day in a year-long class, so they are at about the 4.5 weeks mark. Talk about crazy trying to keep the pacing straight and everyone moving.

One thing I know:  All my readers need to revisit the goals they set for themselves the first week of school. We’re going to start with independent reading. I’ve seen a little too much of this lately:

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Taken after exams when I suggested students use the time to read.

and not enough of this:

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Daily routine: 15 minutes of independent reading

I set the standard high and ask my students to read three hours a week. This is difficult for busy teenagers who are not used to reading (and if we are honest, many are not used to completing any type of homework).

We will read this article this week “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” and create our personal reading challenge cards. But before we do, I want to get students thinking about themselves as readers and what reading can, and should, mean to them and what they hope to accomplish in their lives.

Objective:  Interpret a quote on the importance of reading and connect it to my own reading life; construct a plan to help me meet my reading goals.

Lesson:  Students will select up two literacy/reading quotes and glue them into their writer’s notebooks. They will then think about their reading habits over the past several weeks of school and write a response to the quotes that connects their reading experiences (or not) and begin constructing a plan on what they can do differently in the upcoming weeks to either continue to grow as readers, or start to.

Follow-up: Later in the week we will also read “The Insane Work Ethic of Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, and 15 Other Powerful Leaders” and write a synthesis-type response using the two articles and their personal goals for reading.

Please share in the comments your ideas for getting and keeping students developing their reading lives.

How Conferring and a Book Solved the Tissue Issue, and Hopefully, Much More #FridayReads

You know the boys who cannot sit still? I’ve got a gaggle of them in my second period. Now, I’m not talking about elementary school kids, nor middle school. I’m talking about the juniors I teach in high school.

No sooner do I blink, and at least one of them is up walking to the tissue box. He’ll slowly take a tissue. Saunter on back to his seat (for about three minutes — I’ve timed it) and then waltz on over to the trash can to throw the tissue away and then mosey on back to his seat.

With eight of these guys, it’s constant motion. And I need Dramamine.

One class period. Five days. Two boxes of tissues. Gone.

At the end of that first very long week, I realized the reality. All kinds of memories flooded back from Tom Newkirk’s class “Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”at UNH Lit Institute the summer of 2015.  (If you haven’t read Tom’s book Misreading Masculinity:  Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, it’s insightful.)

My tissue-loving boys were posturing all over the place, and somehow I needed to stop the Tissue Issue.

It’s been easier than I thought. Really, it’s all about getting them into books they want to read.

On the first day of school, I’d prepped my room with stacks of colorful engaging books on every table. We did a book pass and wrote down titles we thought we’d like to read. I showed my passion for books and reading, and my students rolled their eyes at my request they read for three hours a week.

“No way,” I heard one young man mutter, “I ain’t reading.”

This attitude doesn’t deter me.

Even if they were faking it, after just a few days and lots of one-on-one mini-conferences, every kid in a class of 30 at least looked like they were reading. Except two.

I invited these two separately into the hall for private chats about their social PATT (party all the time) moves in the classroom.

“You know, they all follow your lead, right? I need you working with me to make this class work.”

Both agreed, and I asked them to shake my hand on it.

But old habits die hard.

Then, today — 13 days into the school year — gold.

Book gold.

“Hey, Mrs. Ras, can I talk to you in the hall?

“Do you think you could help me find a different book to read — one with music. You already know I like music.” I remembered his free verse rap at the end of class last Friday.

“So give me some ideas –”

“Well, something like that book JaBo’s reading…the long way one.”

A Long Way Gone?” (I’m trying to remember if there’s any music in this memoir about a child soldier.)

Both of my copies were checked out. I had to think fast. Crash Boom Love, a novel in verse by Juan Felipe Herrera, National Poet Laureate, flashed in the corner of my eye. (Thank you, poetry shelf just inside the door.)

We flipped through the pages, and I explained that it’s a book written in verse — all poems that make a complete story.

“You mean like one long poem?”

“Yep. Do you want to trade me this book for that one?” I said nodding at My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel in his hand he’d been fake reading for 12 days. (I know he chose it for the pictures. “It’s weird” is all he could tell me in our first conference.)

Not six seconds after we’d entered the room, I saw Kameron flipping through the pages and showing his new book to JaBo.

That’s when you know you’ve got them — or at least got a chance at getting them to read — when they do a book talk to their friend before they’ve even read a page.

screen-shot-2016-09-08-at-11-05-01-pm

Meet Kameron. He may be a famous rapper one day.

I love this work with adolescent readers. I know we can change lives as we help young people grow in literacy skills, as we help them recognize themselves in books, and help them see others so different from themselves in the books they read.

It might be the only hope we have as a nation. Empathy, compassion, tolerance, justice, mercy, and love all wait for discovery like healing treasure and hope in the pages of the books we share with our students.

And when that book gold finally glistens — well, that’s when I have to cross the room for a tissue.

 

 

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