Category Archives: Community

Free Digital Book Resources for Teens – Booktalking during a Pandemic

Independent reading always matters.

Student access and student choice are important now more than ever, so it’s time to share what is working!

Before our school went to distance learning, we could see it coming. We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when, so the teachers in my department made extra space and time for our students to go to the school library during English classes to check out books. It was a good idea and I’m glad we did it, but those books are running out. Many students have read through their check outs and then some, and are looking for something new.

During regular school days, I always shared a new book in the form of a book talk. It’s hard to keep that up without our classroom library right at our fingertips, but it’s still important.

That’s where the online book talk comes into play.

I’ve been posting and talking up books every day of our online learning time. I have tried to find books that are free and relevant so that there aren’t any unnecessary barriers for students.

One resource that I’ve particularly loved is Epic! because they have so many graphic novels, and right now their content is free for teachers and students until June 30.

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They have more than just graphic novels, and their collection is very kid-friendly.

Another one I love is Simon Teen’s offerings of lots of current YA lit. They rotate their free offerings each month, and most of their content is the full read.

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I’ve definitely used these options for my virtual book talks. In fact, today I’m book talking Want.

Some of my students have discovered that listening to books is more appealing to them than traditional reading, so audio books are more and more popular in my classes. Audible has made their content free until the end of the school year, so it’s a great resource. They’ve got titles for all ages, from classics to teen lit all the way down to picture books for little ones.

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Some other good resources are

  1. the new Harry Potter World website.
  2. Time for Kids
  3. Project Gutenberg
  4. Bartleby.com
  5. Scribd
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Harry Potter

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Time for Kids

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Project Gutenberg

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Bartleby

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Scribd

This is certainly not a comprehensive list. There are many, many resources out there for our students and teachers. These are a few that I am familiar with and I like. I hope they are helpful for you and your students. Feel free to leave more ideas and resources in the comments below!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

Our Friends the Books Are a Way Back

As I’ve scrolled (endlessly, too much, really) through Twitter recently, I’ve stumbled across some teachers (even Carol Jago!) admitting how hard it has been to read as of late. This is understandable, especially so when many of our typical access points for reading are a barrage of news and opinions and stories of COVID-19. 

As for me, amidst the social distancing and the so many unknown’s, I’ve turned to my first and truest friends: books. When friendships proved difficult and sometimes elusive growing up, many adults in my life offered me books. Books provided companionship that taught me much about my own humanity and the humanity of others. Perhaps that’s why I’ve reached for books now and why I’m using them to connect in my home and to all of you. 

I’m including in this post a book that I am buddy reading with my fifth grader; books that my fifth grader has recently read; and books that I have read or am reading. There are friends that give me ways to share stories and grow with others. There are friends that challenge me, stretching what I’ve known into what I can know and become. There are friends that are old, inviting me back into their pages so that I can find solace and laughter. There are friends that will help me find my way back to all of you when next we socially convene. 

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 2.39.22 PMMy fifth grader and I are currently reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. According to the eleven year old (11yo): “I think it gives a really good idea of the history of racism and anti-racism, even though, as Jason Reynolds says, it is NOT a history book.” When I asked my 11yo what it does, he explained that it goes through every detail from the earliest period on and tells a really good story through it. Although we aren’t finished yet, he would recommend it to other kids and adults because “it shows how bad people have been.” One example is what happened to Black soldiers from the 25th Infantry Regiment: “they were kicked out of the army and some of them had been falsely accused of killing a bartender and wounding a police officer. These soldiers had been the pride of Black America and had done much for their country.” I recommend it as well, for fifth graders to adults. Jason Reynold’s remix of Stamped from the Beginning uses a conversational tone that shifts to sarcasm at just-right points to reinforce the gravity of the history and perspective shared. 11 yo and I take turns reading, and I ask him follow up questions. I wish I had this book to challenge and expand my worldview at his age. Yet, here we are, growing together.

 

Two other books the 11yo has read recently include Jerry Craft’s graphic novel New Kid and Nic Stone’s Clean Getaway. About New Kid, it focuses on seventh grader Jordan Banks who gets sent to a private school where all the students there are white, and it shows how hard it is to fit in when you are different than everyone else. The graphic novel makes it engaging, especially where it “includes parts from Jordan’s notebook” (11yo thought this was cool!) that he keeps to process what he experiences at school. New Kid is recommended too. Clean Getaway, in 11yo’s estimation, “tells the story of a kid who sneaks away and ends up on a road trip to Mexico with his grandma, where he learns more about his grandpa and his past on the journey. There are lots of surprises throughout and the pictures and point of view of Scoob make it exciting and fun to read.” Each of these books helps 11yo explore and engage with different perspectives. 

 

Two books I’ve read recently, in addition to reading Stamped, continue to challenge me to be a better human: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.  Just Mercy tells the story of the founding of the Equal Justice Initiative and its work to seek justice and mercy for those whom our system and policies consistently fail. I appreciate its call to action–that “all of us can do better for one another. The work continues.” In How To Be An Antiracist, Kendi interweaves his own story with critical history to distinguish between racist, assimilationist, and antiracist, culminating in a powerful analogy, one that should inspire us to do better. Both books are accessible to high school students and would be excellent reads for AP Language, AP Government, or AP US History classes. 

And, I’ve found myself thumbing through old favorites like Mary Oliver’s poems from Red Bird (and her other volumes), which remind me to look to the birds, look to the brilliance of their energy, look to all that’s thriving as spring blooms. Your students might respond to Spring, The Sun, Red Bird–each with their own light. When I’ve needed a laugh I reach for Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, excerpts of which you can find  here; the stories about the birthday cake and the dinosaur costume spark laughter for their graphic depictions as well as the persistence of the young Allie Brosh and the insistence of her memories.  I’ve found needed solace by re-reading J.K. Rowling’s(okay, and maybe watching the movie, too) Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, resting in Dumbledore’s assurance that “Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” Perhaps, as you connect with your students in the days ahead you will consider sharing the words on which you lean.

 

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Finally, in my ever-expanding curiosity about instructional coaching, I chose to read Jim Knight’s Better Conversations: Coaching Ourselves and Each Other To Be More Credible, Caring, and Connected. I appreciated the simple statement that “When trust exists, there is learning, joy, and love,” and this point seems most poignant as I think about connecting, face to face, sans screen. It won’t be just about physical closeness, but emotional, too.

Books remain steadfast friends, the friends I have that will lead me back to all of you, a better person, ready to do the work alongside you. 

Kristin Jeschke is, besides a reader, a mom to an eight year old and an eleven year old, who are also readers. That is to say, books are among our dearest friends. She also serves as an Instructional Coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

It’s Okay to Not Know What to Do Next

Today feels weird. 

Weirder than a normal Friday the 13th, full moon, week after time change. 

If you live in Ohio like Angela, you might feel like the world is burning. If you live in WI like Shana, you might feel like, what is happening?

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No matter where you live, we want to remind you that it’s okay not to know the answers today. It’s okay to take a deep breath, close your eyes, and wait a while until you begin to try to figure out next steps. 

It’s okay to give kids an (air) hug and send them on their way with excitement in your voice. That’s what they need. 

It’s okay to keep up your usual lunchtime rant sessions alongside colleagues instead of maintaining “social distance.” It’s okay to worry about where we might send our own children if their districts close and ours remain open. It’s okay to continue to allow large gatherings of students to gather in our classrooms for lunch. Normalcy isn’t necessarily a bad thing right now.

I’m in a school today and hear teachers saying, “Have a great spring break!” And as soon as the kids leave, teachers are gathering work, finding chromebooks to send home, and collaborating on next steps, preparing for the worst.

Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe it’s okay to wait until Monday to see what unfolds. 

We want to create space as a community of teachers here at Three Teachers Talk to support each other. How might we figure out ways to eventually deliver instruction to kids remotely? It’s not enough to just assign StoryWorks, or send links home, or hope our kids have access to Schoology or Flipgrid. How can we continue to create space for our student communities to support each other? How can we make those experiences meaningful…ish? 

But that’s a post for later. 

Today we just want to join together in a collective hug deep breath gesture of support that doesn’t involve droplet transmission of any kind. 

Because we’re teachers. And we got this. 

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Shana Karnes teaches in Madison, Wisconsin. Together, they support one another’s practice, reassure each other about political, social, and healthcare upheavals, and keep each other motivated to write through the use of witty text messages and snarky GIFs. May you find an equally like-minded teacher friend to help you survive and succeed in these trying times. Connect with us on Twitter at @wordnerd and @litreader, respectively.

AP Lang Students Read a Variety of Texts: Student Voice and Student Choice Increase Both Volume and Love of Reading

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The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights; Where the Crawdads Sing; The Time Traveler’s Wife; Blink; The DaVinci Code; How to Stop Time; Thinking Fast and Slow; Girls and Sex; One Hundred Years of Solitude; There is No Me Without You; Dark Money; Deception Point

I recently asked my eleventh grade AP Language and Composition students to share with each other their “favorite” books from the school year. I explained to them that they didn’t have to choose just one, and they didn’t have to pick the top book of the year if they couldn’t decide. They just had to list some favorites. They were happy to oblige!

The variety of topics and genres was a lot of fun to see on the list.

Some of the nonfiction that was popular wasn’t necessarily a surprise. I’ve loved some of these titles, too.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last summer and loved it so much that I bought four copies for my classroom library. I thought it was a great book for many reasons – it appeals to students who love science, history, ethics, and great writing. Several of my students have read it this year, and it made the list of favorite books.

One of my students read Inventing Human Rights during the first half of the year, and she’s still not over it. She went on to read A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because she was feeling inspired.

Another one of the titles that I have heard several students talk about this school year is Peggy Orenstein’s Girls and Sex.

 

Because of their interest and thoughtful conversation about this book, I ordered a copy of Orenstein’s new book, Boys and Sex for next year’s new classroom library books.

 

AP Lang titles

The Firm; Congo; The Tipping Point; Under the Banner of Heaven; A Deadly Wandering; Crazy Rich Asians; All the Missing Girls; Blackberry Winter; Memoirs of a Geisha; The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Unbroken; In the Time of the Butterflies; The Power of One; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Inventing Human Rights

My students aren’t just reading nonfiction, even though that is the primary focus of AP Lang.

Congo and The Firm are some classic thrillers that some students have nearly inhaled, they’ve read them so quickly. All the Missing Girls is a more current well-loved title, and it’s not just a thriller; it’s written so the timeline is backwards, which makes it a bit more complicated to follow, and I love that my students are tackling this kind of challenge.

Another work of fiction that doesn’t ever seem to be on my shelf – it’s always checked out – is Crazy Rich Asians. I made sure to order another copy as well as the rest of the trilogy, so next year I’ll have some happy students.

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There are quite a few titles that have made the list of favorites, and most of them are from my classroom library rather than our main school library. I truly believe that the immediacy of availability along with the daily book talks are what have made these books interesting and intriguing enough to my students that they try them out, take them home, and declare them as favorites.

Immediacy of availability along with awareness of their existence, plus the expectation and option of student choice become a powerful combination. Authentic readers like wildly different texts sometimes, and other times love the same titles, but are ready for them at different times. The poster with the titles is helpful for this because students can find recommendations as they are ready for them, and can choose their own timing.

The fact that sixteen and seventeen-year-old students have favorite titles makes me happy. The fact that these titles are smart, thoughtful, and challenging is even better.

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Discomfort Leads to Learning

I recently started working with a delightfully sadistic personal trainer named Carol.

Carol has five children, is in her late fifties, and can literally bench press me if I’m not doing squats or pull-ups to her satisfaction. The first time Carol pushed me through a workout, I couldn’t even lift up my two-year-old after our session ended. I groaned in discomfort basically every time I moved for 24 hours afterward and cursed Carol’s name from afar.

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But over the past few weeks, the challenging workout has become gradually easier. I can finish the routine without my legs turning to jelly and grimacing in pain every time I try to climb stairs the next day. What was once incredibly difficult is now the just-right amount of challenging, and the success I feel in surviving one of these workouts motivates me to attempt another one.

As I’ve limped around our high school on the days after my training sessions, I’ve noticed a connection between challenge and growth. My students are keen to avoid discomfort of any kind–social, emotional, and academic. They have a multitude of coping mechanisms that help them disengage from challenge, and it’s impacting their learning negatively, to say the least.

It’s only natural to want to avoid challenge. Recently, a colleague gently pointed out the implicit bias in some of the talk teachers engaged in when discussing students. Her attention to deficit-based language made me blush in embarrassment at first, but a day after thinking over her (fair and accurate) critique, I was grateful for her challenge.

Without feeling uncomfortable, I never would’ve realized that there was a lesson to be learned. Fortunately, this colleague framed her noticings as a call-in to action and revision, rather than a call-out of mistakes made that are unfixable.

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This attitude toward challenge is what Zaretta Hammond refers to as a “warm demander pedagogy” in her work on culturally responsive teaching. Warm demanders encourage students toward growth by forming a “therapeutic alliance between the person in need of change and the person there to help support the change process” (92).

Being warm demanders and encouraging our students to live in the zone of proximal development is difficult, but I believe inviting our students into a place of challenge and discomfort is the most valuable component of the learning process. As teachers, it’s our job to match our students to the challenges and resources that they need to grow as individuals. Indeed, Hammond urges teachers to position learners “so that they will take the intellectual risk and stretch into the zone of proximal development. That’s the point of rapport” (82).

In our classroom, normalizing and valuing intellectual risk–urging students to dwell in discomfort as we learn–is something my learners and I prioritize. This can look like valuing process over product, rewarding choice and challenge rather than compliance and conformity, or offering frequent opportunities to revise thinking and assignments. Within our professional learning communities, this can also look like inviting others to challenge themselves via call-ins and alliances as co-conspirators.

And so I urge you, first and foremost, to read Hammond’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. And then I invite you to challenge your students, your colleagues, and yourselves to spend some time dwelling in discomfort: the place where we can most genuinely measure ourselves.

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Shana Karnes lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin and enjoys working with her 9th graders and amazing teaching team. She continues to challenge herself as a learner alongside colleagues at the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Teacher Identity Matters

This wasn’t the blog I intended to write but one I felt compelled to write. As a teacher consultant, I work in a variety of schools across the nation and overseas. This particular day I was in a school filled with students new to our country, who have tremendous gaps in their literacy backgrounds, and whose parents struggle to make ends meet. In small groups, teachers were discussing their identity as readers and writers.

“I don’t read except for some informational text,” one teacher said. “I just got burned out in college reading all those books I didn’t want to read.”

And who was this teacher? The interventionist. The professional whose job it is to support striving readers: those readers who don’t know how to choose a book, who don’t have the strategies they need to read with understanding, and who haven’t experienced the pleasure in finding a book they love. I wondered how she could instill the joy and love of reading if she didn’t know it for herself. How could she help students develop their identities as readers if she doesn’t view herself as a reader?

Then I heard a teacher in another group say, “I love to read. I don’t think I’ve ever gone a day without reading. And I know I’ve never gone a day without writing something.”

“What?” someone in her group asked incredulously. “You write every day?” It was clear that the other teachers in her group shared that response. What those colleagues didn’t understand was that this was a teacher who was a member of the literacy club that Frank Smith wrote about years ago, a teacher who could open the door for her students to also join this club.

Overhearing these conversations reminded me of conversations with teachers in other schools and made me think about the importance of a teacher’s identity, particularly in a readers and writers workshop:

  • “I can’t get my kids invested in their writers’ notebooks. They won’t use them unless I stand over them.” When asked about her own writers’ notebook, she shyly admitted she hadn’t kept one since college.
  • It was day one of a two-week writing institute for teachers. I explained, “In the mornings we study writing instruction and in the afternoons, we write ourselves.” At the first break, one teacher left with plans not to return. Her colleague explained, “She hates to write.” And who was the disappearing teacher? A high school English teacher.
  • A principal – formerly a high school English teacher – told me, “High school students hate to write. You have to do something to trick them into it.” When one of her teachers asked for supplies to beef up her writers workshop, the principal turned her request down, convinced that those supplies would be a waste of the school’s limited funds.
  • With surprise, I watched one of the most caring teachers I had worked with teach a grammar lesson. “When do you use semi-colons?” she asked. And when a student answered correctly, she threw him a piece of candy. She posed question after question about conventions, tossing out more candy when students gave her the right answers. When we debriefed, she told me that she hated teaching grammar  and didn’t know any other way to engage her students in thinking about the rules.
  • Down the hall from that teacher, I watched another teacher confer with one of her young writers. Opening her writers notebook, the teacher said, “I hated the way this part sounded, so I thought I’d try using a colon and list some ideas, just like what we saw in Barbara Kingsolver’s story the other day. Why don’t you give this craft move a try and let me know what you think.”
  • “Those young adult novels are lousy literature. I would never assign one to my students.”  When I asked about what she had read recently, she told me that she hadn’t read a young adult novel since college but trusted the judgment of her friend the librarian.
  • I watched another teacher confer with a reluctant reader. “You might try tScreen Shot 2020-01-22 at 5.00.36 PMhis one. I loved it,” she suggested as she handed him Kwame Alexander’s Crossover. A few days later, the student shyly asked the teacher for another book just like that one. And the teacher found one and then another for him. Because this teacher read young adult literature, she could bring herself into the classroom in the same way Julie Swinehart did in her blog about summer reading.

Teacher identity matters. Our identity as readers, writers, literary scholars, even editors carries over into the classroom, shaping our interactions with students, the plans we make, the structures we put into place. A teacher who sees herself as a reader can share her enthusiasm and knows the value of providing choice and time for students to read. I wonder if a teacher can create a dynamic readers workshop if she doesn’t love to read?

And what about writing workshop? Can a teacher design and implement a writers workshop if she never writes herself? Or can he promote the value of a writers notebook if he doesn’t keep one himself? Can we nurture our students identities as readers and writers if we aren’t a part of the literacy club?

I wonder.

 

How do you nurture you identity as a reader? As a writer? What impact does your identity have on your reading or writing workshop?

 

Confessions of a Grown-Up Fangirl

I have finally discovered the cure for a story hangover.

You know the feeling I mean–turning the last page of a book, watching the final scene in a movie, knowing that the work of the creator is done when it comes to the characters and worlds you’ve come to love.

I’ve been known to enter depressions when I get to the end of a beloved book series (Harry Potter, notably), TV series (Bones wrecked me), or classic novel re-read (Pride and Prejudice still upsets me when it ends). But recently, like many in the Star Wars fandom, I was emotionally ravaged by the conclusion of The Rise of Skywalker.

It wasn’t just that I didn’t like the ending of the film (I didn’t); I was also distraught that the nine-movie space opera that spanned 40 years had come to an end.

So, I did what I always do when I’m just not ready for a story to end–I turned to fanfiction.

And I certainly wasn’t the only one–there were thankfully already thousands of stories to read, with no shortage of choices when it came to theme, characters, length, or writing style.

So for weeks now, I’ve continued to immerse myself in the Star Wars world I love, and I’m just now coming up for air. The difference in my emotions is remarkable, as it’s now my choice to exit the story’s universe, rather than it being dictated by a non-negotiable end to a film (in which I left the theater sobbing).

After reading pretty much every “fix-it fic” (fics that seek to change the ending to a more palatable one), I realized that there were still some details I wanted to read about that I couldn’t find in any published stories (like, hello, that Death Star scene should have had much more dialogue!).

So I did basically the nerdiest thing in my life and started writing fanfiction.

Writing stories using someone else’s established characters and worlds was shockingly easy, even though I’ve never really tried to write fiction before. And because of the community of kind and voracious readers in the world of fanfiction, I didn’t even hesitate to hit publish on my stories, which began with notes about how new I was to the writing side of things.

The comments, kudos, and hits kept me motivated to write like nothing else could. I wrote a few short stories that were self-contained, but couldn’t help starting a longer story that I could only write a chapter of at a time. Having readers comment that they were desperate for the next chapter spurred me to write in the early morning hours before school.

In talking with my students, I am constantly shocked by how many of them have had similar experiences–they read and write fanfiction about their favorite books, movies, TV shows, video games, and even musicians and artists. “Fanfiction is always there for me,” my former student Victoria recently told me.

I hope to nudge more students toward reading and writing fanfiction in my classroom, as it’s a wonderful way to grow as a writer and reader. In the meantime, I’ll continue my own reading and writing journey as an enthusiastic, unapologetic, grown-up fangirl.

Shana Karnes teaches 9th graders in Madison, Wisconsin. When she’s not geeking out with her students about literacy, she’s reading with her cats, writing with her coffee, or telling stories to her two young daughters. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

A Return to Flexible Seating

After introducing flexible seating into my junior/senior English classroom last year, I reflected in July about what I liked and didn’t like about the classroom arrangement.  After implementing some changes of my own and many reader suggestions (thank you!), I wanted to reflect over another semester of flexible seating.

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What I changed this fall:

  • Furniture Arrangement:  This year, I made smaller pods of seating. I got rid of the large round tables that ate up a lot of the room and actually moved in more traditional desks (partially due to larger classes).  With the additional space, I was able to fit two smaller tables and a set of chairs for students to work, providing more options for spaces. The room has a nearly-equal balance of seats that require students to use clipboards for writing and desktops or tables.
  • Expectations:  We had a discussion about the purpose and role of flexible seating in the classroom at the end of the second week of school and set guidelines together versus rules.  Students were granted permission to move the furniture to better facilitate group work or sight of the whiteboard, with the stipulation the room comes back to order when the bell rang.  We also discussed the importance of creating a single classroom environment, not one of multiple little pods, and facilitating that through direct eye contact.  I also shared my goal that the classroom feels more like a home than a place of rigid learning, but that homes are to be respected.  
  • Ownership:  While I still reserve the right to ask a student to make a better seating choice, I started the year by asking students to change seating areas each day for the first two weeks.  I believe this established that no one has a “spot,” but we share the space based on need and how we are feeling each day. Additionally, students are required to select a seating new area of the classroom every six weeks or so, which coincides with our school’s midterms and quarters.

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With larger classes this year, the room is more crowded, but feels more, well, flexible.  Removing the large, cumbersome tables also makes re-arranging the desks and chairs for a Socratic Seminar much easier.  I also have enough desks to facilitate an inner circle of desks and an outer circle of chairs. With smaller tables, groups are naturally formed which is a time saver and I can check in with one area at a time for conferences or work checks. Additionally, with less traditional seating available than with last year’s set up, my students and I have utilized the luxury of the cafeteria tables right outside my door.  While one class period a day may not be able to access these additional workspaces because of the lunch schedule, the cafeteria tables have become an extension of our classroom and great for spreading out groups or when we need more table space.

With very few reminders, students have been respectful and able to flow between small group learning and whole-class learning.  I notice students craning their necks to look at their peers or myself when talking and students.  While some classes are more open to moving daily than others, I find more students are switching around where they sit every few days, are moving based on what we are doing in class, and voluntarily switching seats to accommodate peers.  Students this year take responsibility for their seating choice for the day and have not “claimed” a seat as students did last fall, sitting there through the spring. Sometimes, I confess, the classroom does feel disjointed, like when students are working independently and chatting with those close to them, but I remind myself that at least they’re in a community, not isolated desks of individuals.

While the set-up and general facilitation of non-traditional seating is not always easy and I’d love to make my own place in the classroom just as flexible, students unanimously responded across six classes that they prefer the arrangement and choice to rows of desks, especially for reading time.  So if it works for them, I will make it work for me!

Maggie Lopez wishes everyone a happy, productive 2020 full of excellent books!  She is currently reading “The Lost City of Z” by David Grann after thoroughly enjoying “Killers of the Flower Moon.” You can connect with her @meglopez0.

Novels in Verse in the Senior English Classroom

I have always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with poetry. I know as an English teacher I shouldn’t admit this, but poetry has always been my least favourite genre to teach. While I loved to read poetry as a teenager, I loathed when we had to study it in class as I felt that all the analyzing destroyed it. Unfortunately, some of this mindset has followed me into my teaching career and I have often struggled to really love teaching poetry and I have found that this translated into the way my students have engaged with poetry, as well.

While trying to find a new connection with poetry in my classroom, I have found a few things that have helped. The first was spoken word poetry – the powerful performances of these talented poets sparked some of that old love I used to have for poetry in me and I found that it was easy to translate this excitement into my classes.

The second is what I want to talk about here – my discovery of the novel in verse. The first novel in verse I picked up was Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover when I was trying to find a book to recommend for a sports obsessed reluctant reader. I didn’t realize it was a novel in verse when I first opened it up, but from the moment I started to read it I was hooked. The combination of poetry with a narrative arc spoke to me and I realized that novels in verse could be an accessible pathway to poetry for not just myself, but for my students as well. Since then, I have integrated novels in verse into my classroom in many ways. Sometimes I have held book clubs where all of the novels students can choose to read are novels in verse where other times I have chosen to integrate just one or two titles along with prose novels and graphic novels.

Some of my favourite novels in verse I have used recently in my classes are the following. Some of these books deal with heavy topics (in particular October Mourning), so I would recommend reviewing them before using them with younger students.

Death Coming Up the Hill By Chris Crowe: I stumbled upon this one almost by accident and I am glad I did. It was in the bargain bin at a bookstore I was at and I am glad I discovered it. Death Coming Up the Hill is set during the Vietnam War and follows the story of 17 year old Ashe who is dealing with family issues during the backdrop of the war. The story follows Ashe as he tries to avoid being drafted for a war he does not believe in. This powerful novel in verse is even more impressive as it is written entirely in Haiku with every syllable in the novel representing a fallen solider who actually died during the war.

Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle: The poetry in this novel is completely compelling. Besides being a novel in verse, it is also a memoir of the author’s experiences growing up between two cultures. Set during the Cold War, we follow Margarita’s childhood as she struggles to reconcile her Cuban heritage with the American world she is growing up in.

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Lesléa Newman: This is a hard read, but a powerful and important one. It may, however, be too much for some students. This novel in verse takes us to October 6, 1998 to tell the true story of when 21 year old Matthew Shepard is lured from a bar and beaten to death simply because he was gay. This novel in verse is tragic and powerful at the same time. 

If you had asked me several years ago if I would ever read a novel in verse, I am not sure that I would have said yes. These three novels in verse, along with several others have changed my opinion and have helped me become a more passionate poetry teacher.

If you want more recommended reads, check out my previous post on integrating authentic voices into our middle years classes.

Pam McMartin teaches Senior English and is the Senior Teacher Librarian at an independent school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is reluctantly becoming more of a poetry fan the more she exposes herself to powerful, modern works. You can follow her on Twitter @psmcmartin

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