Category Archives: Talk

How We Built our First 3 Weeks of Workshop

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Look at Sarah’s room!

A classroom built around flexible seating is amazing for kids building their literacy.  Comfy chairs, tall stools, and bean bags take a student out of a “classroom” mindset and into a creative work space that encourages ideas to flow across boundaries that might have been impermeable with rows and rows of sterile desks.

It works just as well for teachers building a workshop from thin air. You can imagine how comfortable that tan couch felt on the last Friday morning before the start of school.

Sitting in that room for this much anticipated planning session felt as comfortable as if I’d been there for a decade.  Five teachers with a singular focus gathered their resources and experience to put together a plan that was student focused and built on the foundation of workshop.   I got to know this group well at the Literacy Institute but I’m still trying to learn the full extent of their individual and collective power.

It is important, on our team, to be intentional and explicit with our lesson design.  The kids should know exactly what we are doing and why we are doing it.  They should recognize the moves their teachers make and take comfort that those moves were selected specifically for them. There is no reason to keep the “why” and the “how” a secret.

On this team, we typically build lessons with an eye towards a learning focus that starts with something like: I want you to know that readers/writers ….. do something. (Thanks Amy, Billy, and the Lit Institute.)

For the first three weeks, though, we talked about using: I want you to know that members of a Reader/Writer Workshop….do…one of the six pillars.  You get it.

Our curriculum documents, designed by teachers, contain a section devoted to the six routines of workshop instruction and the following are the routines around which we built lessons:

The Reader’s/Writer’s Notebook

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use a notebook to explore thier literacy.

Our “notebooks” look very different teacher-to-teacher.  Some of our classes will use traditional composition notebooks and some will use Microsoft OneNote in our explorations.  Either way, the point of having a safe and personal place to plan, draft, revise, reflect, etc. remains consistent across our classes.  Its not enough for us to ask the kids to have a notebook, they need to know the importance of having it.  Some of the kids struggled with following my set-up instructions because they were intentionally vague.

Student: “Mr. Moore, what categories do you want us to use to track our reading this year?”

Me: “That’s up to you.  Its your notebook.”

Self-Selected Independent Reading:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take ownership of their reading and writing experiences.

I remember back to last year, and how much the kids struggled genuinely connecting to a book. Maybe it was the hurricane sitting out in the Gulf or that they really only had one year of workshop leading up to their senior year.  What ever it was, we worked hard to take ownership of our reading, so much so that I wrote about it here and here. (Looking back at those words is like seeing the words of a different writer, but I digress…)

Mentor Texts:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop use mentor texts to guide their learning.

We use mentor texts to teach kids how to read and write like a writer. The students need to know that we looking at the writing of others with specific intentions in mind. Its important to delineate the separate lenses of craft and content and constantly reinforce the importance and interconnection of both.

We planned for ways to write beside them.  When I write in front of my students it invites them to connect to a writer from their community.  This connection is between a student and a person that shakes their hand every day and smiles when they make eye contact. That’s an incredibly deep connection and one that I’ll leverage every chance I get.

Mini-Lessons:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop look at specific skills that we want to learn and then apply those skills to their reading and writing.

The skills we choose to highlight are intentional and our students need to understand that they aren’t chosen at random.  Not only that, but we aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes in our mini-lessons before we move back into reading and writing, with an emphasis on those specific skills.

Collaboration:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop listen to others share and provide feedback that supports their growth.

I can’t teach all 30 of them all the time and maintain any level of effectiveness.  We have to build a supportive community that  allows me to widen the feedback cycle from one, typically confident student, to 30 who are confident to share with their confidants. They need to know that the days of me asking a question and calling on one person for the answer are far behind us.  We practice the routine over and over. Ask a question, discuss in group.  Ask a question, practice their thinking through written response. Rinse/Repeat.

Oh, and they have to be trained not to shoot up their hands or shout out an answer when they are asked to notice something.  Instead, they will learn to sit in the silence and let their thinking wash over them in waves. Or maybe the metaphor is to peel back the layers of their thinking like an onion. Whichever you prefer.

Conferring:

Lesson Focus: I want you to know that members of this Reader’s/Writer’s workshop take advantage of opportunities to talk one-on-one with the expert in the room.

The importance of regular one-on-one conferences can not be understated. I’m not just “checking-in” on them while they read and write.  I’m digging into their thinking for places I can provide support.  We will explain to our students how important it is for them to be honest and open when we confer.  They can’t hold back due to nervousness or fear. Like Jerry Maquire said, “Help me, help you!!!” with that typically creepy look on his face.

 

Based on our planning sessions, impromptu secret meetings, and the genuine happiness in which we approach each other, I know this year will be my best ever and it is because of the work this team will do together to move our freshman class forward in their literacy.

Now, in all seriousness, lets cross our fingers and hope nature and fate don’t hit us with the same intensity as last year.  We all need time to heal a little more.  Let’s do it together.

Charles Moore had a quiet Friday night and went to all four of his son’s soccer games this weekend.  He passed El Deafo by Cece Miller back and forth with his daughter this weekend.  He put more than two thousand words to the page this weekend between his grad classes and this blog post; a new record.  He can’t wait to get back into the classroom Monday morning and learn alongside the students.  And he wishes you the same happiness he’s enjoying right now. Visit him on twitter or instagram.

 

 

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Five Ideas that Beat the Dread

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

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

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

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

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

I learned a better way.

Wait.

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

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

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

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

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Three poems:

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

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

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

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

  1. Author Bios!

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

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

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

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

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

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

 

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

Back to Basics: The FUNdamentals of Teaching High School English

“Mrs. Mendoza, you should write a book!”

One of my more enthusiastic students suggested this to me upon completion of our anticipatory class discussion prior to reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. During this particularly intense conversation, I warned my students that my job was to help them truly THINK about their opinions versus simply letting them share them without having to explain their perspective. They needed to be prepared for me to push them out of their comfort zones and to explain the WHY behind their position.

I quickly replied, “About what? How To Argue With Teenagers?” 

Throughout the discussion, I made sure EVERY student voiced their opinions and ensured that they knew that these were not set in stone. They were allowed to move freely around the room if their thoughts changed based on their peers’ perspectives, but they had to be ready to discuss their choices and why they made them.  

My student countered, “About anything! I would love to know what YOU really think about…just life in general-in all its forms.”

imagesWhile I admit it, his comment hit me right in the warm, fuzzy teacher-feels; I was more focused on the fact that I felt like my students not only enjoyed class that day, but they left also feeling like it was meaningful. Making meaningful connections to Shakespeare BEFORE we even read it? Why yes, yes they did. #teachergoals

One of the best ways I have found that readers and writers workshop works in my class is when all students experience the chance to speak, listen, read, write, and interact. Usually, it doesn’t take hours of preparation, 953 copies, or even a super cool tech device, app ,or tool. [Although, those strategies/tools work well, too!] Sometimes, it requires nothing but time and a little FUN…damentals.

A while back, Amy Rasmussen wrote about her 7 Moves in My Workshop Schedule which helped me envision my own teaching non-negotiables in my classroom. She referred back to it here when other teachers inquired about the question that plagues several teachers everywhere; “How can we do it all?” Simple. We go back to the basics.

During that week, I admit I was pressed for time due to the end of the grading period, room displacements, etc. I needed to plan something that would require very little of me in regards to preparation but would serve as a strong springboard to launch into our study of Julius Caesar. I researched and found an anticipation guide with 5 controversial statements I knew would make for an incredible discussion. Levels of Agreement

Around the room, levels of agreement signs were posted in which students traveled to based on their perspective of the statement. Here’s a brief rundown of how the lesson flowed in our class;

  1. Upon discussion of agenda for the day, we read each statement individually first. Then, they listened as I read them aloud again.
  2. Students were asked to rank their levels of agreement and write about whether they agreed, disagreed, or were undecided. Students were given time to work through each statement prior to discussion.
  3. We went through each statement individually. Students were able to share their perspectives, interact with each other whole class and within each new group, and revise their thoughts if they heard something they didn’t consider or were undecided to begin with. They SAW this live as we were talking through it and verbally explained reasons for the changes they made to their original responses.
  4. After we went through each statement, students had the opportunity to choose which statement they wanted to reflect about and had time in class to write about it. If students needed clarification or assistance, it gave me an opportunity to confer with them individually.

So many of my students were eager to provide positive feedback once we debriefed the discussion prior to reading the play. They appreciated the diversity in their opinions and the ability to express themselves in a safe space. EVERYONE had an opinion to share. We were able to agree to disagree and keep the conversations objective and focused throughout the discussion.  Even though it felt like we didn’t “DO” a lot, we read, wrote, discussed, revised, reflected, explained, conferred when necessary, and supported our thinking. Bonus: We had FUN, too!

I am still learning and working on how to consistently implement these practices daily in my lessons. I am not there, yet. However, as long as I have these non-negotiables in mind, I know the rest will come.

What are your non-negotiables when it comes to the basics? How have you been able to successfully implement them? What challenges have you come across, too? I would love to learn from all of the ideas, strategies, and routines you have in your classrooms, so please share!

Gena Mendoza teaches High School English in San Antonio, Texas. Her recent non-negotiables in life have become a fully stocked candy stash in her desk drawer, Blue Bell’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough Ice Cream, Starbucks’ mobile ordering app, and finishing All American Boys by Jason Reynolds. She invites you to connect with her on Twitter at @Mrs_Mendoza3.

What Teachers Really Need To Hear

I have been working on a post about how to teach students to write purposeful conclusions. I’ll still write that. But as I’ve spent the last few weeks working with teachers, creating plans for the weeks before testing, I realized there’s something else I need to say. 

Dear Teachers,

I see you.

I see you on the picket lines, demanding more for students, for yourselves, for our world. I see you in your classroom in the late afternoon light, fine-tuning tomorrow’s lesson. I see you on the last day of spring break, bringing your own son to school, working for hours in your classroom to get ready for the week. At your daughter’s soccer practice, grading papers between goals. At the beach, reading books your kids might like. At the library, scouring shelves for the just-right books about mullets for that one kid.

You. Are. Amazing.

I see you now, as testing season blooms, these weeks that have been looming finally here. I see you cheerleading and boosting and nudging. I see you creating review games, engaging kids and building their confidence. Behind that, though, I see the stress, the wonderings, the worry.

Will they try?

Are they ready?

Did I do enough?

The answers: Probably. Yes! Absolutely!

The truth is, we’ve done everything we can. We are at the doors of the big game, and what’s left is to cheer. And to remember that despite what it feels like, the test is a slice of a year full of wonder and growth and success. 

The tests feels huge — they are huge. But these tests are not the sum of you as a teacher. Just as you remind your students that they are more than a score, you are more than a growth measure or a value added or a designation on an evaluation. You are their teacher. 

I’m reminded too that after testing season passes, we still have several weeks of instruction left this school year. What a gift! We still have time to introduce students to new characters, to immerse them in new genres of writing, to push them to stretch.

Dear Teachers, I see you. You are beautiful and strong. Thank you.

This letter is inspired by the piece What Students Really Need to Hear by Chase Mielke (a great mentor text for students!). 

Angela Faulhaber works as a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH, and teaches pre-service teachers at Miami University. She is in awe every day of the passion she sees in teachers and loves planning with and supporting them so they can do their best work.

 

Why It Matters

An enormous part of my teaching philosophy is centered around teaching students to question the “why” of what we learn. Not necessarily why are we learning, but why does what we learn matter? How does what we do in our classroom apply to their lives? I sincerely believe that if students cannot walk away from my class each day able to answer those questions, then I need regroup and question the purpose of my lessons.

 

 

pasted image 0Kelly Gallagher, a high school teacher in California, is an advocate for getting students to think critically, read deeper into various texts, and along with several other educational rockstars, structures his classroom according to the workshop model.

In his book, Deeper Reading, he discusses the “Say/Mean/Matter” chart as a way to make any text relevant to students in addition to helping them become critical readers and thinkers.

 I regularly use this strategy in several ways in my classroom which consistently provides me with opportunities to keep my lessons meaningful to my students. What I love most about using it is that it provides students with an opportunity to focus on what they are learning and why/how it matters. This also shows them that EVERYTHING we read, write, discuss, etc., has a purpose.

 

I recently completed novel studies with my students and was able to implement the “Say/Mean/Matter” concept with all 3 of my grade levels. In my experience,  I learned that I needed to provide more scaffolding for my younger students versus my Juniors who were more equipped to take the concept and run with it. It seems like the older they get, the more eager they are to share their opinions and challenge what they read.

For my Freshmen

Earlier this school year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a professional development session that centered around Kelly Gallagher’s Say/Mean/Matter strategy. I was able to scaffold this lesson by targeting specific pieces of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, a few at a time in order for students to focus on examples of social injustice. Over a series of impromptu class discussions and informal reading/writing responses to various texts about inequity, I broke each section of Say/Mean/Matter down so that students were familiar with applying this idea to various forms of literature. Once we reached the pivotal point in the novel, we completed this with partners they chose (and some they didn’t), using sticky notes to frame discussion.

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From there, we completed our graphic organizer together using our stickies from the day before. Students were asked to expand on the ideas they came up with together. After modeling my discussion notes and conferencing with students, their responses clearly showed that these examples of social injustice meant something to them. It became more than just an assignment to them, it was a chance for them to safely explore, discuss, and write about opinions that mattered to them.

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Eventually, this led to a Socratic Seminar that took us 2 full class periods to complete. Every student was engaged and ready to share their ideas and ask questions because it was relevant to them. Not only was this a chance for their voices to be heard, but they truly cared about what each student had to say and remained open-minded throughout the process.

A Small Snapshot

This was just one of the incalculable ways to foster relevance and meaning to students that perfectly aligns with the benefits of teaching through the workshop model. Now more than ever, what we do as educators is of the utmost importance. By building these moments of discovery into our lessons, we allow students to create and develop meaning for themselves. The students are our purpose. Our profession centers around helping them develop and unleash their potential. Once students realize what we teach has applicability and value, there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

I would love to know other ways you make your lessons meaningful and relevant to students in your classroom in the comments!

Gena Mendoza currently teaches Freshmen, Sophomore PreAP, and Junior English in Texas. She is passionate about teaching her students to use their powers for good and not evil in her classroom. When not pouring over any written or spoken word by Jason Reynolds, or preparing her family for their next Disney adventure, you can catch her Tweeting/Retweeting at @Mrs_Mendoza3 on Twitter. 

Everyday Activism: Enacting Change in Your Classroom

I’ve waged a war between sadness and hope this week in my teaching life. Sadness that yet again, another mass shooter took the lives of students and teachers. Hope that this time, the response would be different.

This is the first mass shooting I’ve followed news coverage of since becoming a mother, and accordingly, my sadness is magnified a thousandfold. I cannot imagine losing one of my precious children; I could imagine it even less before I had them.

But, my hope is greater after this tragedy, too. I’ve been so warmed by stories of students who survived the shooting mobilizing to enact change, like this one from NPR. “This kind of activism feels really different, compared with past mass shootings,” says journalist Brian Mann.

These passionate students-turned-survivors have spurred me toward activism, too. I don’t think there’s a simple solution to this complex, multilayered problem–and I don’t think our national conversation should attempt to polarize the issues of gun control and mental illness. I don’t know the right way to deal with either of those issues, but I do know a place where we, as teachers, can begin to enact change.

That place is in our classrooms, where students like Nikolas Cruz can sometimes go unseen for so long that they transform from lonely teenagers to angry gunmen before our eyes.

Our classrooms, where so often we have students so busy working toward meeting standards that they barely have time to meet our eyes, or one another’s.

Our classrooms, where, yes, great learning happens–but where teen realities like bullying, rejection, and failure happen, too.

Are you seeing these layers to your students’ identities? Seeing beyond who they are as readers and writers, and into who they are as friends, sons, daughters, boyfriends, and girlfriends? Who they are as social beings outside our classrooms?

We must see our students this way. We must make every effort to foster conditions of inclusivity, to teach in culturally responsive ways, to, simply, see our students as people and not just learners. When we do, we transform from spectators to activists.

Desiring to build community is no longer just a nice goal to have in addition to covering content standards. The ramifications of leaving students alienated are becoming more and more significant.

Inclusivity is no longer just a buzzword–it has become a matter of life and death.

Our teens are unhappier than ever, bombarded by apps that promise connection but in reality deliver isolation. They feel so lonely that they are spurred toward violence–toward themselves or others–in alarmingly increasing numbers. Nikolas Cruz is just the most visible product of this horrific trend.

There is so much we can do to see our students, to help them feel seen. Glennon Doyle writes here about a way her son’s teacher thoughtfully fosters inclusivity and interaction in her classroom by “breaking the codes of disconnection” she unravels when she really sees her students.

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I must have felt that message keenly when I planned my classes this week, since I packed in as many small-group or partner talk- and feedback-filled activities I could. My students wrote to one another–about having patience with and faith in our students–in their notebooks. They got into groups to talk about ways to individualize curriculum, and created anchor charts with their takeaways. They formed different groups to devise a list of creative alternatives to traditional tests, so every student could feel successful, on a Google doc.

My students also wrote their autobiographies this week, and workshopped them with a partner they don’t usually talk to. As I scanned through their comments on one another’s work, I was filled with joy:

“This makes my heart happy!” one student wrote in her response to a classmate’s heartfelt description of his fiancee.

“I feel sorry for anyone who will be Alex’s colleague–in a good way! She’ll be one of the best teachers at her school and will push her colleagues to be the best that they can be.”

“I’d love to work with a teacher like you.”

I watched my students read their peers’ comments, and little smiles stole over their faces.

A huge, happy grin stole over mine.

In response to violence, I drew my students closer–to one another, to our subject, to me. I wanted them to have the chance to see one another, to feel seen, and for me to see them more clearly as people and not just students. Workshops like these bring students together. They work, and if you’re skeptical, here are five reasons you’re wrong. When we teach into our students’ needs–both academic and personal–we make a difference. We enact change–every day.

And maybe, we save lives.

Please comment and share ways you help your students see one another and feel seen. We’d love to know how you do this important work.

Shana Karnes loves her work with preservice teachers at West Virginia University, with practicing teachers through the National Writing Project at WVU, and with her amazing thinking partners here at Three Teachers Talk. She is hopeful that this generation of students and teachers will be better, kinder, more open–and she will never stop trying to make that hope a reality. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Upside Down of SparkNotes

My ninth period class sometimes feels like the Upside Down, you know, the terrifying parallel universe kids get sucked into in the Netflix series Stranger Things. They seem to keepcalm_shutupfunction in perpetual chaos. Every day I whack-a-mole them into their current book, notebook work, mentor text, draft, or just away from their phones.

In another teaching universe, I might anticipate 9th period with fear and loathing. But I don’t. Despite the daily ruckus, there is no malice in their behavior. In the universe of RWW, we can muddle through these chaotic moments together, (mostly) with humor and (mostly) without the rank-pulling that commands student compliance. And sometimes, these moments even provide a portal to the universe of important conversations.

This class has a number of self-proclaimed non-readers. Luke considers reading a “hobby” that some people enjoy and others don’t (and shouldn’t have to do). Lani regularly describes herself as “not much of a reader.” Miles’s stance is more ambivalent. He wants to know stuff, but sees reading as inefficient for doing so. I ask, “What ruined reading for you?” He answers without hesitation: “SparkNotes.” He elaborates, “It’s just a faster way to get the information.” Classmates nod their heads in agreement.

INFORMATION?!? I recoil.

By “information,” they mean what they will be held accountable, by quiz or discussion. When I remind them that we don’t do that in RWW, they explain — gently, mercifully — that now it’s just a habit. They look genuinely sorry for me, as if they just told me there is no Santa Claus. Or that SparkNotes is Santa Claus. Which maybe it is: the Santa Claus of the Upside Down, that parallel universe where reading resides for many of our students.

In their practice-revolutionizing book Disrupting ThinkingKylene Beers and Robert Probst distinguish between “aesthetic” and “efferent” reading. The former is about how a text affects our thoughts and emotions and the latter about the information we can extract from it. In classrooms where the efferent is favored over the aesthetic, SparkNotes is a useful substitute. Miles and his classmates have learned to reside here, to the extent that efferent reading is their natural stance in their English classrooms.

Beers and Probst do not discount efferent reading out of hand. It certainly has its place when information or efficiency is the goal. SparkNotes is a means to this kind of extrinsic end that drives so much of how we measure “success.” Can we blame our students for using a resource to reach that end more efficiently?

Aesthetic reading doesn’t lend itself to extrinsic reward, making it incompatible as a means to the end of racking up points toward the reward of an A. But here is the very reason why we must stand by its importance: the aesthetic stance is what invites the emotion and empathy that brings qualitative value to students’ reading experience, that honors the power and the beauty of the written word, that opens a window into the lives of others. And, which encourages the “compassionate thinking” that Beers and Probst define as so critical to our students’ reading lives.

My 10th-grade RWW students were given the option of book circles. In planning for rolling out their choices, I tried constructing elaborate lessons to reveal the beauty of a text so that students would have to admit to its aesthetic power. What I should have realized sooner is that a lesson like this was beside the point.

SparkNotes_F451_screenshotThat day, the SparkNotes summary of the first chapter of Fahrenheit 451° (one book circle choice) was their writing prompt. There was some confusion: Were they supposed to write about whether they were going to choose that book? Or to predict what the book might be about? This prompt is like any other daily writing, I told them. Just write what it brings to mind.

I’m not creative enough to make a lesson into a mystery. When students finished writing to this (rather uninspiring) prompt, I told them straight up: Now, here’s the source text for this SparkNotes summary. Please, just listen.

And I read aloud the beginning of Fahrenheit 451°. 

It was a pleasure to burn. 

By the time I reached the description of Guy Montag as a “conductor” of the symphony of flames that silenced the voices of the books he burns, there was also silence in the room. More students than I expected opted for the book circle, reading Fahrenheit 451°. I don’t know whether these choices resulted from an aesthetic reading of the book’s opening, but isn’t it pretty to think so?

Kathleen Maguire teaches Sophomore English, Senior Advanced Writing, and AP Language & Composition in Evanston, a suburb just north of Chicago. When she’s not grading papers or reading books to recommend to students, she tries to keep up with her yoga and her 10-year-old son, Jude (not in that order). She tweets at @maguireteach.

 

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