Category Archives: Amy Estersohn

What Puzzles Can Teach Us

It started as nothing more than a marketing pitch for my Tuesday afternoon math club.

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Then I noticed that students were spending more time in the hallway staring at my door than they were talking to each other.

 

Then they started talking to me about their answers.

 

A few got it right on the first try.

 

Some shoved calculators in face and groaned when I told them their strategy was appropriate, but their final answer needed a little tweaking (not to mention a brief explanation of how they got there.)

 

Others chatted about it with a friend for a few minutes, wrote up their account of a friend’s explanation, and could then explain it to me independently.

 

Within 24 hours I had 26 correct answers and three different solutions from students.  My door looked like this: 

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this puzzle — not just the beauty of the question (try it, and if you get stuck, ask me for help and hints!) but also what this moment teaches me about being a teacher.  Here’s what I am thinking:

 

 

  • Content should always be at the center of our work.  I could have done more to make my handwriting neat or to color-code the question, but a passive presentation and my casual scrawl was sufficient. If we don’t have good content, students won’t be impressed no matter how much jazz and pizzazz we can put into something.
  • If we ask the right question, we don’t need to ask “Why do I need to know this?”  My old classroom overlooked a parking lot for a Walgreens.  This Walgreens parking lot, whether I liked it or not, was the source of endless curiosity, including questions like, “Does that Coca-Cola delivery truck ONLY have Coca-Cola in it?”  For this student, the Coca-Cola truck was a tantalizing item of inquiry and discovery — because it was there.   Students who approached the puzzle did so similarly.  It’s here, and I don’t need to know the answer.  But I want to. 
  • Try and try again.  A long time ago a friend in the sciences and I mapped out our ideal college science and math classes.  The defining feature?  Problem sets with the traditionally difficult questions of the college classroom, but unlimited trials and do-overs for answering questions.   We wanted an expectation that all students should be able to do the work, but that students had plenty of opportunities to revisit a challenge.
  • An enriched learning experience doesn’t always look, sound, or feel like a classroom.  I wasn’t expecting this puzzle to generate enough buzz that it nearly derailed independent reading (!)  one day.  My first instinct was to control and contain the noise and the chatter, but then I realized that for some students at that moment, life and learning merged.

Now I just have to figure out how to put up puzzles without taking away from independent reading time….

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher from a family and community of math teachers.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MSE

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I really like grading papers

I have something to tell you, and you’re not going to like it:

 

I enjoy grading papers.

 

I do.

 

miranda sings haters back off

I learned about Miranda Sings from paper grading.

When I grade papers, I learn about the world.  I ask questions I never thought I’d ask.  I become more informed.  Grading papers, when it is going well, is like reading a really, really, really long newspaper.

 

Some of the things I’ve learned from student papers:

 

  1. Superstar quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t a top draft pick back in the day.
  2. The NFL has a lot of strange rules and has an even stranger escalating fine scale for the strange rules.  
  3. In some states there’s a different minimum wage depending on whether you receive tips or not.
  4. The Denver Broncos have a home field advantage because they are used to breathing in that Mile-High air.
  5. The Jets had a miserable season and we’re still pointing fingers all over the place as to who is to blame.
  6. Disney Channel shows are NOT what they used to be.
  7. It will be difficult, but not entirely impossible, for Donald Trump to build a wall against the Mexican border.
  8. Caffeine has some health benefits.
  9. There are child YouTube celebrities.

 

It’s fun to grade papers when students know they have something they want to share.  Getting students to that point, however, requires some heavy lifting.

 

 

  • I model and post my brainstorms.  If I am asking 100 students to come up with new ideas, I have to come up with some fresh ideas, too.  I share my brainstorming at the beginning of a unit and continue to post and share brainstorms throughout the unit, and students who feel stuck take to or modify my original ideas.  This is not unlike the editorial meeting where the editors toss out a variety of ideas and writers pick up the assignment.
  • I try to develop a “yes” culture that empowers risk-taking.  My students are age-young and experience-young.  They don’t know that there are culturally hip, feminist publications like Teen Vogue or analytical commentary pieces like those in Vulture.  They don’t know that The Economist blends news pieces and opinion pieces.  Or that published writers often figure out what they want to write as they write it.  I have a lot of teaching to do around the words “Yes,”  “Try it!” and “Other writers already do something like this.”
  • I meet writers slightly above eye-level.   As teachers, writers, and readers, I think it’s partly our responsibility to share knowledge and resources with our students.  If they wrote about cell phone addiction last year (and they all did, they all do), then this year I have to talk to you about privacy and apps on your phone.  If you’re reading the MARCH graphic novel series, I have to tell you about the time a Harvard professor was arrested for trying to break into his own home.  When they ask me “Is that real?” “Did that really happen?” I know I’ve struck writer’s notebook gold.

 

 

How do you help students brainstorm new topics so that you aren’t reading the same paper hundreds of times over?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She defers to her students’ judgment on good YouTubers.  She tweets at @HMX_MSE

A Workshop Approach to a Whole Class Novel

I spent my President’s Day-Week vacation (the one that New York teachers and students get- yes, a whole week off for President’s Day!) scrapping my whole-class unit on The Outsiders and rebuilding it to reflect the values of a reader’s workshop.  First, I had to define my values:

read and write in english class

 

  • Choice in what we read and what we read “for” (information, entertainment, character chemistry, therapy, etc.)
  • Diversity in opinions, experiences, and interpretations
  • Engagement in ideas.  I always like to tell students that you don’t need to read to think, but a book can make you think something you haven’t thought about yet

 

 

I also had to define my teacher non-negotiables:

 

  • Reading for ideas. Students will be able to read a scene from a book and connect it to an idea
  • Tracking how that idea changes over time.  Students will be able to see how ideas unfold and develop over the course of a story, either by using a chronological progression to explain how an idea unfolds (At the beginning of the story… in the middle….at the end) or a more conceptual approach (At first I thought…. Then I realized….)

 

 

Here’s how a typical lesson on a typical day looks like in this unit:

 

  1. A visual reminder of what we’re reading for when we’re reading The Outsiders
  2. A mini-lecture on the chapter.  After I summarize the chapter, I choose a passage and my readers help me write an entry.  I make sure my passages reflect “small moments” of the book instead of the plot-heavy moments of the story to show how careful reading leads to intellectual rewards.  
  3. A group “crowdsourced” journal entry on my chosen passage. This requires a lot of fast, on-the-spot teacher thinking, as I will call on one student to begin the entry and another student to provide a follow-up sentence.  I like the idea of composing a paragraph in real time under real demands, because it allows me to ask the questions that writers should be asking when they write, like “What more can I say here?” and “Do I have any evidence to explain this idea?”  Later on, I post each class’s journal entry for other students to see and appreciate.  I emphasize that four different classes will have four different readings of the same scene.
  4. Time for individual journal entries on one of our four major ideas.  I invite students to post-it note possible scenes to write about as they read, through I don’t require it and I don’t encourage students to annotate as they read, either.  (Incidentally, my low-stakes approach to post-its has resulted in more student requests for more post-its than I ever thought possible.)  Most students have a scene or two that they want to take ownership of in their own notebooks.  Some students will continue the conversation we had as a whole class in their own notebooks, taking the scene I chose and adding something new to it.
  5. Time to share our thinking at the end of class.

I also posting and tracking some of the “greatest hits” ideas, ideas that I know will inspire strong thesis statements once readers finish the book.  By the time students prepare to write an essay, they will have a menu of student-generated thesis statements along with their own thinking about the book to reflect on.

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Adapting this teaching to other books.

 

I was thinking about how I might teach other works using the same approach.  Here’s one thing I’ll say to high school teachers in particular: if you try this, you’ll find yourself making careful decisions about what you really want students to know and what you will let them figure out on their own.   It means letting some “juice” of the book drop and appreciating that you won’t have time to discuss the importance of every reference with every student.

 

For example, if I were teaching The Great Gatsby, I think I would let readers encounter and interpret the Valley of Ashes and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg on their own.  I would want to instead focus on Nick’s first description of Gatsby as a quasi-Moses figure and the fact that he dropped out of St. Olaf College — small details that lead to powerful and enduring interpretations and ideas.

 

Some suggested ideas and topics for popular high school books:

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  • Civilization
  • Friendship
  • Trust
  • #ownvoices (if you aren’t familiar with this twitter hashtag, look it up!)

 

The Great Gatsby

  • Sin and Religious Iconography
  • Money

 

Macbeth

 

  • Greed
  • Lies/Lying
  • Power
  • Dreams/Reality

 

How are you using workshop methods and thinking to approach whole class novels?

 

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  When she was in middle school, her favorite authors were William Shakespeare and Meg Cabot.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MSE

 

 

PD Book Review: BETWEEN THE LINES by Michael Anthony and Joan F. Kaywell

Between the Lines by Michael Anthony and Joan F. Kaywell is frank teacher-to-teacher talk about how you can run a reading/writing workshop in a high school environment even when school administrators aren’t invested in “low-brow” reading.  This book is the pep talk you need if you want to steer your classroom towards workshop but are tied in by constraints.

 

 

This book lays out the following:

 

  1. Ways to fit in independent reading and writing inside a highly scripted (and highly controlled) curriculum.betweenthelines
  2. How to talk to administrators about the value of the work.
  3. Example lessons and Common Core-aligned activities centered around independent reading.
  4. Suggestions for connecting independent reading to whole-class novels.
  5. Models of authentic student responses …. And examples of “phony, lookalike, and limited letters.”
  6. Examples of teacher prompting, and means of assessment.
  7. Specific advice for building up classroom libraries.
  8. Detailed appendices of awards for YA books to follow and popular YA books for classroom library collections.  (This list is almost 20 pages long!)

 

The implications are clear: even if there are a lot of things in this book you can’t do, there is something here that you can incorporate.  Can the movie on the day before vacation and do some booktalks or play some book trailers instead.  Spend less time reviewing quizzes and more time sharing reading responses.  Be proactive about book donations and procuring used books.  Talk to administrators about repurposing homerooms and study halls as time for independent reading.

 

Since Anthony and Faywell’s attitudes are all about flexibility, I would add three considerations to any teacher using this book to implement new routines around independent reading and writing:

 

  1. Anthony and Faywell ask students to fill out reading logs and include a signature from an adult who is accountable for that reading.  I feel iffy on logs to begin with, and even more iffy on asking teens who are old enough to drive for an adult “reference” for their reading progress.   Adult signature gives an air of “I don’t trust you” and “You are not yet fully responsible for your own growth.”
  2. Anthony and Faywell’s reading accountability is based on peer-to-peer correspondence and peer-to-teacher writing.  Casual correspondence is lovely, especially if you do not have time to confer with readers.   However if writing were the only way I was holding readers accountable to independent reading, I would think about opening up the reading response beyond just I think/I wonder/I notice approaches to new genres and styles.  If you are already committed to teaching impartial literary analysis and other “old school” writing modes, why not open it up when it comes to the fun stuff?  Why not invite the reader to become creative and revise the ending or to be critical and write a review?  Why not retell part of the story from another character’s point of view?  Why not allow for students to journal about reading and their feelings towards reading?  Why not write a comic?
  3. I would have liked to have seen more attention to graphic novels and magazines in this book, as these texts include valuable reading experience and are closer to the brain candy that teens are likeliest to reach for once they leave our classrooms.  

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her best reading experiences as a kid happened without adult knowledge or supervision.  Follow her on twitter at @HMX_MSE

 

Getting Feedback From Your Toughest Critics

Remember what it’s like to be a student, constantly wondering if your teacher likes you, worrying about your next assignment and your next grade?

 

Me too.

 

I give out periodic “teacher progress reports” to my students to coincide with the progress reports I have to fill out for them.

 

These “progress reports” are an opportunity to hear raw student voices enter the way I think about our work together and the way I plan future lessons and future units.   Unlike your principal, students spend dozens of hours with you and aren’t trained to hand you a compliment sandwich.

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Here’s some of what I learned by going through student responses:

 

Students really, really, really like independent reading time.   It’s clear from student feedback that independent reading is an important routine to their days.  Some wrote about how they look forward to coming in from lunch to a silent classroom for some reading.  Others wrote about how they enjoyed the time to do something they enjoyed.  Many students asked me for more independent reading time.  Aside from giving out candy (most popular suggestion #1) and going outside to play for class sometimes (most popular suggestion #2), more reading topped the list.  Some students even ask me if we’ll ever spend a whole period reading.

 

They love to write when they know what I am — and am not — grading for. One of the beauties of setting up strong workshop routines is that there’s always a good sub plan in the wings.  If I am going to be out of class for a period or two, I assign a “free choice” writing assignment.  Students are responsible for handing in a writing piece on a topic or genre of their choosing, and they are graded only on their attention to the grammar and mechanics concepts that we’ve reviewed in class.  By making the assessment so literal, students play with form, content, and message: I collect memoirs, mob stories, text message conversations (with graphics!), screenplays, journal entries,  epic fantasies, and more.

 

Students love “ghost grades” on major assessments.  I give students the option of a “ghost grade” on a draft for a major project.  That grade serves as a) a minimum final grade, and b) a benchmark for future improvement with concrete feedback on what needs fixing.  Students enjoy making changes and watching that lower “ghost grade” improve in the final draft.  This ghost grade helps make some of their writing progress visible as far as the literal gradebook is concerned.

 

Do you do elicit feedback from your students?  If so, what have you learned from that feedback?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She will probably never give out candy, but she will, on occasion, give out emoji stickers, which students pretend not to care about.  (But they do.)  Find her on twitter at @HMX_MSE

Booktalk this now: THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER by Patricia McCormick

The story behind the story.  At this year’s ALAN workshop (you should go!!! free books!!!! lots of authors!!!!!!)  I heard Ryan Graudin, author of Wolf By Wolf, talk about her research of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

 

Dietrich who??!!!

 

Oh, you know, this guy who was part of a larger group planning to publicize Hitler’s misdeeds to the broader world and to kill him.

 

Ryan’s book is all about an underground resistance that planned to kill Hitler.  Her book is fantasy.  

 

The Plot to Kill Hitler, Patricia McCormick’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is as real as it gets.

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Whom this book is for.  Readers who have a basic, elementary school-level understanding of Hitler and concentration camps know enough to follow this story from beginning to end: McCormick takes care of readers from there.

 

The topic is heavy, but the short chapters and brisk pacing make this 150-page piece perfect for middle and high school readers as well as mature elementary school readers.  If your school already does a holocaust unit, this book will provide a new point of view.

 

More sophisticated readers will make connections between Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and can debate the relative merits of a pure nonviolent approach to more direct and retributive forms of protest.  One of the most fascinating parts of this book for me was seeing how Bonhoeffer, a deeply religious emotional young man, transformed from a social justice scholar and Gandhi acolyte to a subversive and aggressive warrior.

 

How to booktalk it. Not too much preamble.  Just read the 2-page prologue out loud to the class, where Bonhoeffer knows he is about to be captured by Nazis and races to hide his incriminating papers in a ceiling panel and leaves a deliberately fake diary to throw the Nazis off his path.

 

You should also know… I struggle to match quality middle grades nonfiction with readers.  Some of the most fantastic middle grades nonfiction titles require a lot of patience and background knowledge.  Some are so laden down with information that there isn’t enough of a story to keep readers going.  Other terrific nonfiction titles are awkwardly sized and aren’t easy to carry down the hallway.  This book avoids all of those possible pitfalls.

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Despite her observations that nonfiction books tend to be harder to carry around than fiction books, she has seen students lug around the 10-pound “Hamilton” book — you know, the one with all the pictures of the original cast.    Since you were asking, she won lottery tickets to see “Hamilton” during its first week on Broadway.  Really.  Twitter handle: @HMX_MSE

5 Middle School-Friendly Fiction Books About 9/11

I was still a teenager in 2001, and an immature teenager at that.  On 9/11 I wrote a poem in my diary about watching people jump to their deaths on television.  By September 13, 2001, I was back to writing in my diary about getting the silent treatment and missing allowance money.  I didn’t have a way to process 9/11 back then. 

So it’s no wonder to me that I seek out middle school-friendly books about 9/11, because a middle school book about 9/11 is exactly what I needed when I was… you know… in middle school.

And, interestingly, all of these books emphasize the importance of connections to others in the face of tragedy — not just our family and close friends, but also those neighbors we never talk to, the strangers in our lives, and the people we don’t even know we know.  

 

Some notable 9/11 fiction books for teen readers include:

 

  1. Nine, Ten by Nora Raleigh Baskinnineten

Baskin’s lyrical, concise book follows four different young teens in the hours leading up to the terrorist attacks on the United States.  The emphasis here is on the importance of community rather than the tragic events, and our characters are removed from Ground Zero.  Given the brisk pacing, the age of the characters, and the gentle treatment of the terrorist attacks, this book is probably a best fit for readers in grades 5-6. However, the topic gives this book significant crossover appeal to a middle school or even a high school classroom.

 

 

 

 

  1. towers-falling  Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

This book begins in present-day Brooklyn and works backward, as our main character Deja attempts to understand her father’s emotional fragility.  While younger readers will probably be surprised to discover Deja’s connection to the 9/11 attacks, older readers will be able to make reasonable predictions about where the story is heading from the generous hints Jewell Parker Rhodes gives us along the way.  I appreciate this book not only as a 9/11 book, but also as a book that brings in diverse characters, homelessness, PTSD, Islamophobia, and other social issues.  Recommended for grades 5-7.

 

 

 

 

  1.  Just a Drop of Water by Kelly O’Malley Cerrajust-a-drop-of-water

Before 9/11, Floridian Jake Green’s only cares in the world seem to be  becoming captain of
the eighth grade track team and his grandfather’s war medals.  But 9/11 affects everybody, even in this sleepy town, and all of a sudden Jake’s best friend’s father is taken into FBI custody.   Cerra presents a traditional middle school friendship novel introduces tough topics like the unfair detainment of innocent Muslims and the role of war in international relations.  Recommended for grades 6-8.

 

 

 

 

  1. memory-of-things  The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

On the morning of September 11 Kyle Donohue evacuated Stuyvesant High School, blocks away from the World Trade Center, and walked home to Brooklyn
with a large group of refugees.  On the way he sees a girl with angel wings who seems lost and confused and brings her to his apartment.  This dual perspective story (Kyle’s narrative is straight prose, the girl’s narrative is fractured poetry) is wholly immersive in 2001 period details and is more about people than politics.  Recommended for grades 7+

 

 

 

 

  1. All We Have Left by Wendy Millsall-we-have-left

Hand this book to the reader who wants to be INSIDE the towers as they come falling down.  Readers go back and forth between the story of Jesse, who is 2016 was only 2 years old when her older brother Travis died in the World Trade Center, and Alia, who in 2001 was one of the last people to see Travis alive.  This book is heavy, but its messages of healing and redemption make it palatable to a wide range of readers.  You’ve been warned: bring tissues.  Recommended for grades 7+.

 

 

 

 

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her taste in music is very 2001.  Visit her on Twitter @HMX_MSE

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