Category Archives: Community

Using Technology to Extend Reader’s Advisory

While I do teach one class of Senior English and one class of AP Capstone Seminar, the majority of my job is actually as the Teacher Librarian in our Senior School (Grades 6-12). As a Teacher Librarian, I spend a lot of time focusing on Reader’s Advisory as students stop by the library looking for a book to read.

Reader’s Advisory can take some time and is often about asking the right questions. While some students come to the library with a clear picture of what they want to read, more often than not, students have a vague notion of what they are looking for or have no idea at all. Sometimes when students enter the library they have a clear goal in mind, but more often I come across students mindlessly wandering the shelves because they want a book (or have been told they have to get a book), but really have no clue what they are looking for. These students may be in a reading rut and nothing is inspiring them. When I encounter these students, I always start with questions such as: what is the last thing you read that you really enjoyed? What did you like about that book? What didn’t you like about the book? Sometimes the questioning period is short and I have just the right book for the student, but sometimes the process can take much longer with every suggestion I give being turned down. While my role in Reader’s Advisory can be an important one, often the best advisors when it comes to helping students find their next great read is not me, rather it is their peers. While it is important that we as teachers and librarians are reading the books our students are reading and while it is important that we are able to recommend books to students, it is also equally as important that we are creating a culture of reading in our libraries and in our classrooms where our students are sharing the books they love with their peers and where they are engaging in Reader’s Advisory by recommending books to each other.

To read some more great ideas about creating a culture of reading in your school and your classroom, check out Melissa Sethna’s post on the first steps you can take in transforming a culture.

While some of the best Reader’s Advisory between students happens in the casual conversations in the library or in the classroom or in the excited moments when a student just has to share this amazing book he or she has been reading, technology can also help us extend our reading culture beyond the walls of the classroom and the school itself. At our school, we have been using technology in an exciting way to help extend the conversations around books beyond the school walls.

Over the past few years, our English department has been using Biblionasium and Goodreads to broaden our reading community and to help our students engage in discussions about reading and to connect to Reader’s Advisory moments in larger communities.

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Some of our Grade 6 and 7 students using Biblionasium to write reviews and recommendations about their favourite books.

 

With our Grades 6 and 7 students, we have introduced Biblionasium. Biblionasium is a free social book sharing platform for younger students (there is a paid version, but the only real added feature to this version is that it allows you to link your Biblionasium class with your library catalogue). It allows teachers to create online reading communities. At our school, our Grade 6 and 7 students all belong to our online Biblionasium community that has been set up by their English teachers and by myself. On Biblionasium, students can log the books they have read by placing them on their own virtual bookshelves, can write reviews of these books, can place books on the group’s virtual book shelf to allow other students to see them, and they can also recommend books to other students. As well, the teachers in the group can send book recommendations to the whole class or to specific students. Because it is a program designed for elementary students, Biblionasium confines students to the class that was set up by the teachers and students can not interact with other users on the site. This allows students to engage with their classmates in their Biblionasium group, but does not open them up to a larger community of strangers.

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Page 1 of many (we have had this group going since 2014!) of our Grades 8-12 Goodreads reading group Recommended Reads bookshelf.

With our Grades 8-12 students, we have moved from Biblionasium to Goodreads, another free platform. While many teachers use Goodreads for their own reading, they may not realize that is also allows you to create groups that you can use in your classes. It is this feature we use with our students. We have created a private group for our Grades 8-12 students and for teachers at our school. Much like the Biblionasium group, this group is a place for our students to place the books they have read on their shelves, to share books on the group shelves, to recommend books to each other and to write reviews. The group itself if private, which means only our students and teachers can access it and our shared bookshelves. Unlike Biblionasium, however, the reviews that the students write on Goodreads are visible to the larger Goodreads community. While this may not be ideal for younger students, for our older students it has extended their Reader’s Advisory community in many profound ways. When they write book reviews for the Goodreads community, they are contributing to a larger global discussion about books and when they are looking for book recommendations, they can tap into the reviews and suggestions of a huge community of passionate readers. This not only gives them the experience of writing for a real audience, and access to many amazing mentor texts for book reviews written by other people in the Goodreads community, it also gives them membership into a vast group of people who love to talk about books. This year one of my Grade 11 students discovered that Emma Watson, her favourite actress, is extremely active on Goodreads and, in fact, runs her own feminist book club through the site. My student quickly joined this club and was soon reading her way through Emma’s reading list and engaging in amazing online conversations with other members of Emma Watson’s book club. She was soon bringing these conversations into the classroom and quickly had a whole crew of students – male and female- avidly reading Emma Watson’s recommended books and debating them every chance they could get. I tell you, there is nothing as exciting as walking into a classroom full of students planning their Alias Grace Netflix binge watching session because they just finished reading the book with Emma Watson’s bookclub and they need to watch the Netflix series to see if it did it the book justice in order to join in on the conversation going on in the Goodreads group on this very topic.

Using technology to extend the classroom reading community can have some challenges and does require a certain amount of work with students in regards to interacting with others in the digital environment. The use of technology through reading community sites like Biblionasium and Goodreads can be a powerful way to have students extend their reading community, explore new books and recommended reads, and share their recommendations and critiques with a larger community.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen BC, Canada. She is also addicted to Goodreads and spends decidedly too much time stalking people’s virtual bookshelves in search of her next great read. She is always looking to expand her Goodreads family, so feel free to add her as a friend. Besides on Goodreads, you can follow her thoughts on Twitter at @psmcmartin.

 

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Champions Finish Strong

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About this time, every year, I begin to feel that itch, that urge to chuck everything I’m working on right now and start planning for next year. Maybe it’s the feeling of spring in the air, but I always find myself frustrated with how I spent my time this year and wanting to start fresh and clean for next year. So, as I move into test review mode, I begin my wish list for this year and vow to do better in August. It goes something like this:

     I wish that I had conferenced more…next year I’ll conference and here’s how…

     I wish that I had done a better job with writer’s notebooks…next year those notebooks are going to be cute and organized and here’s how…

     I wish that I had frontloaded this idea more in August….next year I’m going to frontload so hard and here’s how…

     I wish that I had taught this title instead or offered more choice here…next year I’m going to revamp every lesson plan and here’s how…

I think it’s pretty easy to recognize the “I wish” road as a treacherous one to travel down. But, honestly, for me, that urge to start planning for next year in the middle of this year is the real danger.

See, all of the end of the year countdown clocks act as siren songs, pulling me into the excitement of planning for a new school year: new pens (because they help me plan better), PD books (I’m starting with 180 Days), Google Folders (because I’m nerd, this will never not make me happy). I’m getting antsy just thinking about it.

And so I find myself eased into bright, happy, shiny thoughts about how perfect next year will be. I look forward to the excitement of a brand new group of students, of a summer spent immersing myself in practice, of all of the hope a new year of school brings.

And I know these are dangerous waters. I also coach volleyball, and, in that context, I would immediately recognize this behavior as problematic. Whenever my team thinks about Tuesday night’s game before Monday night’s game, we have a rough night. We can’t think about the district tournament in October until we’ve handled August. I would put a clamp on that kind of thinking right away on the court. And so, I’m realizing I also have to lock down my mid-April urges to plan for next year.

Why?

Because, in a nutshell, champions finish the way they start.

I think we have to approach the end of the year the same way we started it – fired up, focused on the tasks at hand, bringing that same excitement and hope and enthusiasm to each LONG day of testing and test prep. Don’t our students sitting in our classrooms right now deserve that? Don’t they deserve to know that we’re happy to see them each day they enter our classrooms, not counting down the days until they leave? Don’t they deserve more than filler? Don’t we deserve to be present in the moment, enjoying where we are right now in our journeys together?

But what is there to be excited for during testing season?

Great question. I teach in TN – testing has been… rough… this week.

However,  I’m particularly excited about three activities between here and our AP Lang and Comp test. These are pretty common activities among AP Language teachers, so I’m not presenting anything new here or even my own ideas (good teaching is good stealing according to Harry Wong), but sharing some ideas that have worked for me. They are tried and true ways to keep students involved, interested and invested on this downhill dash to the test:

1. Rhetorical analysis – Role playing. We’re currently role playing as Abigail Adams writing a letter to her son John Quincy. Students pair up (one is Abby, the other is a dear friend there to offer advice) and craft a letter to her son, encouraging him to take advantages of all of his opportunities. Then we read and analyze her actual letter to him. This is a pretty common AP lesson, but it’s new to this class. The simple act of role playing really deepened our discussion of rhetorical analysis and provided lots of AHA moments along the lines of “You’re right! She DIDN’T sit down and think ‘I need four rhetorical questions and one use of asyndeton. She thought about her large and small goals and worked from there!’” Students left with a better understanding of what to notice in a RA and how to organize their essay around ideas instead of devices. Surprisingly, these letters also showcased an almost aggressive level of voice. It was productive and fun – the perfect way to spend a test prep day.

Here are some examples culled from today’s writings.

 

  1. Synthesis – Pinwheel discussion. Again, more role playing. Students jigsaw a few short texts related to a topic and then come to a center table to discuss a single question in front of the whole class. They are encouraged to identify the attitude of the author and then converse with that attitude as that author. Unsurprisingly, they really get into it. The activity has them intentionally synthesizing  multiple perspectives on the fly and on their own in front of an authentic audience, reinforcing the idea of synthesis as conversation and elaboration.

3. Argument  – Speed dating. Five to six thought-provoking prompts are posted on the board one at a time. Students have four or five minutes to brainstorm claims, evidence, organizational structures and a theses. We whip around the room, sharing insights and approaches, curating a list of universal nouns or excellent pieces of evidence, creating ideas that students can tuck away in their back pockets before the test. I love this activity. There’s such great community in the sharing of ideas while also mimicking the time crunch of the written portion of the test.

Hopefully, none of the ideas feel like test prep. Hopefully, it’s just more learning. Hopefully, we find ourselves excited to be in English, fully present in the moment, enjoying our productive time together. The thoughts and ideas for next year can percolate until the end of May.

Sarah Morris teaches AP Language & Composition and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She plans on watching two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Friday’s Film as Lit lesson. She realizes how very lucky she is that this falls under the category of  “Something She Gets To Do At Her Job For Money!!!!” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms.

Story Generates Story, and More

This past weekend, Tom Newkirk tweeted about writiNewkirk Self-Promptsng fluency and the value of “self-prompting,” and he included a list of a dozen+ prompts that foster such fluency. For Tom, these prompts “swirl in his head” as he writes. For our students, we need to build the habit of prompting questions into their process. Whether through daily writing, regular conferring, or sheer faith in the possibility, many students this year have discovered the true generative nature of writing — a sentence begets a sentence, begets a sentence, and so on. Alas, too many have not.

Our students hear from published poets and slam poetry veterans (our school librarians put on a magnificent Poetry Week every year) about lengthy revision processes. They view interviews with their favorite authors who explain the grueling evolution from idea to draft to revision to “finished” piece. They read lots of writers on writing about the toil of the work. Still, more students than I care to admit still believe in some divine inspiration behind the magic of words on a page, which one either receives or does not. And, to try to write without this inspiration (as in, every day in their Writer’s Notebooks) is a futile endeavor.

Tom’s recent tweet seemed divine in its timing. The day before, as an in-school field strip, 10th-grade English classes participated in a workshop with storytellers from Chicago’s 2nd Sstory_line_awk-e1523848925727.jpgtory, an organization that holds storytelling events, workshops, and education in the value of story — in both the telling and the listening — as the source of human connection. The name 2nd Story refers to the very nature of story as generative: one shares a story of their own experience, which inevitably reflects some aspect of the universal, and then invites others to do the same.

Presenters shared their own stories, which included universals such as losing our youthful belief in things magical, facing our greatest fears and living story_line_rightto tell, proving we’re capable of what others believe we are not. Then they got students up out of their seats in parallel lines or inside-outside circles, so humans faced other humans, screen-free. First, students shared one-sentence stories based on prompts like “I felt [insert emotion] when …” or “Tell about a time when you … broke or ruined something … told a lie … received a gift you really wanted (or not) …” Lines and circles shifted and rotated to maximize the quantity of faces in contact.

Sure, it was awkward and scary at first for many — if not most — of these 15- and 16-year-olds, who may or may not have met before. Gradually, though, as stories even as brief as one sentence were shared, it became less so.

In one of the two workshop rooms, students talked in pairs, sharing their stories by kelly_empathyjpg.jpgelaborating on one of the prompts from the first part of the exercise. I could hear the energy in the room even before I was fully in the door. Moving through pairs of students, I could hardly hear the stories themselves, but no matter. story_lean-in.jpgWhat mattered was that students were hearing them from their partners, many of whom started out as strangers (different classes were blended into one workshop). And not just hearing, but listening. They began, literally, to lean in, closing distances through shared stories and the natural empathy that results. When we return to our regular classrooms this week, students will begin recording their stories on FlipGrid, listening to and commenting on one another’s without the high stakes and vulnerability (even unfamiliarity) of face-to-face, real-time human interaction. Which reminds me …

story_engagement.jpgI’d like to pause briefly to offer this qualifier: On-demand, face-to-face, forced interaction with strangers is not every 10th grader’s cuppa tea. (Heck, it’s not every adult’s cuppa, either.) In fact, several students literally waited it out on the sidelines. But even these reticent, reluctant, and even recalcitrant folks couldn’t help but listen — and be drawn into — the stories of others. And maybe even, as a result, classmates who were still strangers became less “other” than they had been 90 minutes earlier. I’m even holding onto the possibility that the stories heard that day will sustain their generative power and elicit even more — not only more stories, but more listening, more “leaning in,” more empathy, even more inspiration: not from any divine spirit, but from engagement with each other and with the work of writing — and speaking — their truth.

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.

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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.

Formative Assessment Works!!!

For those of you who haven’t taught Seniors, trust me on this:  Formative assessment during the second semester is challenging.

If you’ve taught seniors, then you might understand where I’m coming from:  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they aren’t grasping a concept, or they are just too tired of school to have the energy to engage.

I hurts my heart to even consider that my precious learners are worried about bigger issues than Comparative Literary Analysis essays or finding examples of bias in their self-selected texts.  Prom looms five days away and graduation seven weeks after that.  They work, they compete in extra curriculars, they deal with the adults and peers in their lives.  I forget, sometimes, that their plates are filled with important thoughts.  I remind myself I’m not doing their stress levels any favors by point out that we still have important work to do before June 2nd.

Last Monday we reviewed an excerpt from Niel Schusterman’s Thunderhead as a mentor text for practicing literary analysis through all the lenses that should be crystal clear to these literate learners.  I needed to assess their understanding and thinking so that I could make decisions about the instruction leading up to the summative assessment.  That’s the point of formative assessment; to “form” a plan for instruction.

I read the short selection with them, and asked them if they would, please, mark their thinking on this first lap through the text.  They should, as they’ve done many times before, underline or highlight what they noticed about the words the author chose through the lenses of diction, bias, author’s purpose…literally anything they noticed within the realm of literary analysis. It’s the last nine weeks of their public education career. They should be able to look at a text through a variety of lenses.

Some of them made some marks on the page while others wrote notes next to highlighted lines or words.  Others, though, marked nothing.  [Alarms wiggle and stir in my head. Something’s not right.]

I asked them to share within their groups what they noticed.  Muted whispers of ethos, tone, and metaphor struggled out of some groups, but again, most said very little.  Very few connections were being made. For them and for me, the picture was as clear as mud. This, by itself, is important formative assessment. This wasn’t working. [Def Con 55- Full tilt klaxons at maximum volume!]

Yet, I refuse to blame them.  I fully believe that it is solely on me, the teacher, to facilitate engagement with the text.  Somehow I need to do a better job inviting them to take all those useful tools out of their tool belts and dissect this very meaningful text.

New England Patriots at Washington Redskins 08/28/09

I bear a striking resemblance to Tom Brady.  Photo by Keith Allison

In football parlance, I needed to call an audible in the middle of the game. What I had hoped they would do; they won’t or can’t.  It’s time for me to jump in and scaffold this concept to a place where they can see the connections they can make and I can assess their thinking.  I’m not going to put them in a position to fail on the summative assessment if I know they aren’t ready for it.

In a whole class mode, I read over the text, mark what I notice and verbalize my analysis.

Now I ask them to talk about what they notice.  There it is…an increase in discussion, an inflation in dialogue. The alarm volume turns down a notch, but it doesn’t turn off.

I wrap the class period up with an invitation to write about what moves the author is making and as they do I confer with a few students who seem completely flabbergasted.  The bell tolls, signaling an end to their literary torture session.

 

Thus was the source of my salvation:

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I only saunter.

Jumping into this book reminded me of a few important tenets of writing instruction that I let myself forget:

  1. Give them choice- I was allowing no choice in the subject of their analysis.  I know better than to restrict their reading and writing experiences and I let my, and their, end of the year exhaustion affect my decision making.
  2. Show them, not tell them, what you want to assess.  I wasn’t showing them examples of literary analysis and again, I know better.  I was expecting, wrongly, that Senior English students would confidently engage in literary analysis and move forward with their thinking in a way that shows me they can write a response in essay form.

After school, I tore up my lessons plans for the next four days and re-wrote them to reflect what I SHOULD do to support my students in this exploration.

On page 5 of their amazing new book Marchetti and O’Dell introduce a mentor text written by Joe Fassler from The Atlantic.  His recurring series “By Heart” is a collection of responses from a diverse group of thinkers and writers and is an amazing resource.  A simple Google search returned a link to this series of essays. I scanned the list of the titles and discovered an article from September titled, “What Writers Can Learn From Goodnight Moon.”   In it, Celeste Ng describes her feelings of the children’s book and how it “informs” her writing.

Perfecto!!!

This checked so many of the boxes of what I was looking for in a mentor text.  And…I get to read a children’s book to “big” kids.  I know enough about my students to know they will love this.

Also, I used Marchetti and O’Dell’s five part descriptions of literary analysis on pages 11 and 12 to create a glue-in anchor chart for their readers’/writers’ notebooks that helped to clarify what exactly we should look for when reading and writing literary analysis.

Confidence restored! Disaster averted… kind of.

We Ng’s reflection and discussed how this was a perfect example of literary analysis.  They asked questions, we laughed about Goodnight Moon.  I saw their confidence grow and I knew we were back on track and ready to move toward our essay.

Thursday, we started the drafts and I hope to see many of them tomorrow.

Being responsive and intentional is a crucial part of the workshop pedagogy.  I can’t stress enough how this one piece can make our break my teaching.  My lesson planning skills have finally reached the point where I plan for and anticipate opportunities to change up what we are doing to match what the students need. This was an opportunity for which I hadn’t planned, but we made the adjustment and made it work.

Sometimes, that’s how it goes.

Let me know in the comments below when you’ve had to make big changes on the fly to support your students’ learning. I know I can’t be the only one.

Charles Moore is neck deep in Children of Blood and Bone.  He’s spending the day taking his daughter to school and then having lunch with her.  It might be the best day of his life.  His summer TBR list is growing uncontrollably; feel free to add to it in the comments.

Carpe Disputationem

Before introducing metaphysical poetry to my AP Literature students, I often take a page out of the fictional Professor Keating’s book. My students and I take a little “field trip” to the front of the school, where photographs of students dating back to the first graduating class of 1901 line the foyer. I ask my students to write down their observations. When we return to class, I ask them to share. They often cite racial homogeny right off the bat. Our student population is incredibly diverse, and they cannot imagine an exclusively white school. A discussion about desegregation of schools inevitably follows, as does a conversation about the surprising number of females in the early graduating classes. We also talk about the devastation the World Wars had on the young men in those faded photographs. How many of them survived? They wonder: how did our graduating class grow from 6 to approximately 1100?

After what never fails to be a rich conversation, and the students’ realization that they have walked past those photos everyday without ever looking at them (a life lesson in itself), we watch the film clip from Dead Poets Society in which Keating, played by Robin Williams, engages his students in a similar activity. He explores the concept of “carpe diem” and mortality. Following this clip, I invite my students to write their response to carpe diem. They might write about what it means to them, whether they embrace this philosophy, or any other thoughts or feelings that the saying evokes.

CarpeDiemAfter a few minutes of writing, I ask for volunteers to share their thoughts. In a recent discussion, some students found the idea of carpe diem “frivolous” and thought that people should always stay focused on future goals. To them, “living for today” was short-sighted and irresponsible. This makes sense for teens who are driven to go to the right college and earn the right degree to live a “good” life. Other students said that since none of us are guaranteed a future and we’re “all going to die,” we should do something today: something of value, something productive. Such responses received a great deal of agreement, though students realized that “value” and “productive” are relative, subjective terms. One student wisely noted that we should remember that while we’re trying to live our best lives, others are as well. They discussed the complexities of when the lives of people with different goals intersect. Ultimately, my students saw how their seemingly disparate ideas actually overlapped a great deal, and they separated carpe diem from the trite YOLO idea that many of them initially equated as the same concept.

After a 20-30 minute discussion of carpe diem, my students not only understood the concept, but they also understood their relationship to the aphorism as well as its universal appeal. Onward to metaphysical poetry analysis!

I shared this teaching anecdote to underscore the importance of setting up and maintaining a safe workshop environment in which students expect to read, write, think, share, and work together to construct meaning. My students fearlessly followed me, willing to discuss observations even when issues such as race were broached. I could have presented them with the definition of “carpe diem” or asked them to draw on prior knowledge as a quick basis for launching into the unit of study, but by giving them the space and opportunity to explore the concept, they built a stronger foundation of understanding that will ultimately translate into better reading, writing, and thinking. We make choices everyday about when to lecture and when to facilitate; when possible, we must “seize” the opportunity to trust our students to delve deep beneath surface-level understandings and reach true depths of meaning.

March Madness – A Book Bracket that Breaks a Few Rules

As I write this post, I can’t help imagining what it will feel like at this time Thursday night when I am up to my eyeballs (finally) in all things Spring Break. I’m envisioning an episode of This is Us, an adult beverage, and perhaps some Easter candy the bunny just won’t get a chance to deliver. Maybe I’ll throw caution to the wind and rent a movie, stay awake for the entire thing, and put extra butter on my popcorn. Don’t try and hold me back, friends – I’m going to let ‘er rip. This girl is going to calorically navigate every day of this vacation.

Because let’s face it, sometimes we need to break the rules and revel in what feels good. Sometimes we need to abandon the stress, irritation, and seemingly endless march of…March.

Sometimes we need to break the rules.

Now I know, if I were you, I would be reading on in great anticipation of a reflective post that smacks at the very heart of pushing aside what’s prescribed and going instead with the deeply personal, life-altering, philosophy-bending, workshop work that fuels lives rich in reading, writing, and empathetic connections across our school communities.

Well…did I mention I am only four class periods away from vacation? 344 total class minutes. 18 total hours on the clock. 27 miles there and back to my nice warm bed. Dozens of warm smiles and well wishes for a well-deserved break to all my lovely students and colleagues.

Some will voyage to lands far and wide. Some will go on great adventures.

I will gladly go to my couch. My brain is fried.

 

As such, I wanted to share with you my experience with a March Madness Book Bracket, in the hopes that if you haven’t tried this yet, you’ll consider it for next year, or even better, you will ditch the March Madness component and just create your own Book Battle for April or May of this year to stir up passions around the current favorite titles in your classroom.

Personally, this idea came from two places:

  1. A random picture I saw on Twitter at some point that highlighted the excitement around a classroom book battle.
  2. March Madness Hoopla (punny is as punny does) here at Franklin High School.

Our school is blessed with a great number of hugely passionate, committed, and just all around awesome teachers and administrators across the building. This past month, Franklin saw the advent of our annual March Madness school-wide event. The incomparable Pat Gain, AP Environmental Science teacher to the stars, organizes an extravaganza the brings the whole school together in excitement, friendly competition, and support of Franklin’s Relay for Life and Best Buddies. Students earn raffle tickets for possible school spirit, teams organize to battle it out on the court, and the entire school gathers for a pep rally to watch the championship games and other fun at week’s end. This year, it inspired me to jump on the bandwagon and create a book bracket in my room.

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After the fact, I found this awesome March Madness Book Bracket that includes book trailers, printable brackets, a bracket reveal video, and the wherewithal to organize it all way ahead of time and share it so classes across the world can vote. You can vote in their championship matchup between The Hate You Give and Scythe right now! These people have t-shirts. It’s legit.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here with my humble pie and share with you what I did and what I want to try to do for next year.

First, a disclaimer. I said I broke rules. I did. But it still worked.

  • There was no actual bracket to fill out.
  • I don’t know a lot (enough, much, anything) about basketball.
  • My bracket had no actual lines.

But it all worked out. Check it out below.

Mrs. Dennis March Madness Book Bracket 2018…

  1. Each of my classes did a quick write on their favorite read so far this year. We chatted after writing, reminisced about great books, added to our “I Want to Read” lists, and then put some titles up on the board. Over the course of a few days, the suggestions for awesome books grew, and I picked 16 that represented the most consistently raved about and most passionately advocated for in each class.
  2. I matched up the books somewhat appropriately in logical pairings. Two classics up against one another. Two historical fiction texts. Two books in verse. Etc.
  3. I printed images of the book covers for each title and set up a rudimentary book bracket on the back wall.
  4. A Google Form shared on Google Classroom gave my students the opportunity to vote in any/all of the matchups they felt compelled to vote for. I also shared this Google Form with other members of the English Department and encouraged them to share the link with their students and to vote for their own favorites.
  5. After the initial matchups, I was left with eight books in illogical pairings, so I had students vote for their top four choices one week, their top two the next, and now we’ve arrived at Championship Week.
  6. Before voting each round, students lobbied for the books they felt should move on to the next round. Which were the most worthy of advancing? Which changed student thinking? Which were the page-turners? It was awesome to hear kids going to the mat for their choices, and even when their favorites lost, they continued to try and sway people to still give the book a try. It did make it to the Big Dance after all.

Franklin March Madness Book Bracket Every Year From Now On…

  1. Start the whole process earlier. Give students a chance to pick up a book or two from the bracket and add fuel to the fire of how many kids have a book in the race.
  2. Complete actual brackets for some random and cheap prizes from my Kelly Gallagher-inspired Bag of Fun Crap.
  3. Random pairings. I love the idea from the link above to let the chips fall where they may and let books battle au natural. This eliminates my perceived issue of illogical matchups. Brackets are made to be busted!
  4. Measure twice, cut once. My book covers were almost too big. I had to move furniture! The hallway may be a more appropriate space and would promote the matchups to a wider audience as well.
  5. My pithy neighbor Brandon suggested that tape between the matchups would make it look a lot more like an actual bracket. Touché.
  6. Expand the empire and work to involve more students, more grade levels, more opinions, more passionate pleas for books to advance. More. Madness.

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My March needed a bit of madness and I look forward to doing it again next year. Though we didn’t have any actual brackets to fill out ahead of time, or league sanctioned seeding, or even actual matchups past the first round, the results involved a whole lot of passionate talk and writing around books.

When students hustle in the room to see which books are winners, as opposed to hurridly taking one last glance at their phones before the bell rings, I consider it a slam dunk.

(He he…told you I needed a vacation).

Our bracket is down to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. Which one would be your winner? Which books could go the distance with your classes this year? Please leave your comments below!


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her knowledge of basketball is limited, but her support of underdogs is fierce. Let’s Go, Loyola! Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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