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Category Archives: Amy Estersohn

Students Who Write by Ear by Amy Estersohn– an #NCTE17 Preview

The following is a sample of what I’ll be presenting with Three Teachers Talk at #NCTE17, session C.26, Friday at 12:30, room 274.

Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories, encouraged me to think about students as natural storytellers.

So I dug through their writers’ notebooks to see storytelling in action. During my dig, I wasn’t looking for detail or dialogue or finished pieces.  I wasn’t reading for apostrophes or paragraphing or numbered and dated pages, either.  I instead wanted to know where writers were already practicing storytelling, and what tools and strategies they were already using.

One the ways I noticed that student writers tell stories is that they listen to their inner ear.  This emerged when I read half-baked, quarter-finished crime stories where a student could hear a bought cop addressing a group of criminals.  I noticed it when I heard a writer list the annoying sayings her mother used.  I noticed it again when writers took on a Ken Burns-ish important-sounding narrative voice to discuss an important world issue.

Some students can really hear when they write.

So the first thing I did was I turned that observation back to the students: did you notice how you hear the character in this section?  That observation then became an expectation.  In your writing, you should be able to hear your character or narrator speaking.  When you revise, ask yourself if you still hear your characters or your narrators.  If you don’t, mark the text for a future revision.

There are also ways that writers can practice hearing stories.  The easiest way is just to choose a good piece to read out loud to the class.  For middle school, I’d recommend the first few pages of a Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn Dixie or Jason Reynolds’ Ghost.   For high school, I’d probably choose a text like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or A.S. King’s Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future.  You can read the book in your voice or cue up the audiobook, and ask students to discuss what they noticed and then practice some imitations.

You can also invite students to imitate characters they already know.   It’s always fun to try to imitate a sibling’s voice or a young child’s voice.  I invited students to imitate boastful and outrageous LaVar Ball, a parent of an NBA player, after I provided examples of what he has said.  Students embraced the opportunity to play around with LaVar’s voice in their writers’ notebooks.

AmEstudent notebook

Another idea would be to collect some of the voices of nonfiction: this includes Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo, Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid, some Mary Roach, and whatever nearby textbook or magazine is in sight.  Work backward: what do these voices sound like?  Whom do I imagine is telling me this story?

I could even see students doing multimedia work with voice by tape recording themselves.

I’m going to assume for a moment that teaching voice is probably not new to you.  But what might be new is teaching voice and playing with voice as an element of storytelling instead of housing it within a certain genre or a certain unit.

Will you be at #NCTE17?

Sarah Raises Hand

I hope to see you there!

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She writes book reviews at teachingtransition.wordpress.com and is deeeeeelighted to serve on the CYBILS book award committee for middle grade fiction.  

 

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Using Poetry to Explore Current Events and Controversial Topics

I suffer from a constant urge to bring current events into the classroom.  I love talking about issues current or past  in conferences or small groups with students, whether it’s Tom Brady’s Deflategate or Professor Henry Louis Gates arrested for trying to break into his own home, or the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba.

 

Recently I’ve moved towards making current events more central to what and how I teach, by presenting issues, giving time for questions (of which there are many, most of them excellent, some of them unanswerable), and then providing a creative writing opportunity.  So there!  Writing workshop accomplished!

 

When Donald Trump first instituted a travel ban, I invited students to take on one of the following four characters in a poem:

  1. A Customs Agent at an airport who has to tell a passenger who recently arrived in the U.S. that she is no longer welcome into the country
  2. A business professional from Iran who had to cancel or change a trip
  3. A U.S. Citizen who is concerned about relaxed immigration policies
  4. One of the protesters who showed up at an airport with signs
Travel Ban

Google employees protest a travel ban.

I was amazed at how quickly students took to writing and sharing their character-poems.  Here’s what helped:

 

    1. This was an exercise in imagination, not a rehashing of politics and policy.   Certainly I want them to explore their own feelings about politics, but I want them to do so through the lens of another person.  This may be one of a few times when I tell students it’s not all about what they think!
    2. I presented a range of options with some ambiguous interpretations.  I wanted students to be able to go into a right-wing or left-wing comfort zone  by writing the protester point of view or the concern point of view, but I didn’t want to limit the interpretation.
    3. Students gravitated towards complexity.  Student poems about the Customs Agent often played with the tension between following orders and doing what seems right.  Student poems about the citizens afraid of terrorism considered the best approaches for addressing that fear.

 

 

 

 

I am sure I am not the only one out there who is struggling to think of ways that current events can shine a light into our classrooms and make our work even more productive.  

 

What are you doing to teach current events in Reading and Writing Workshop?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Her favorite section of the New York Times is the wedding announcements, though the national section is pretty good, too.

 

Stop Teaching. I’m reading.

SCENE: My classroom

 

AMY is holding onto a clipboard and attempting to drink from a thermos of coffee while still Looking Important.  She surveys the room of readers and stops at a student who has read an uncharacteristically large amount from the past day.  She stops at the student’s desk.

 

AMY: How’d you do that?

 

STUDENT looks up from book.

 

STUDENT: Do what?

 

AMY: You know, how did you read 50 pages since the last time I saw you?

 

STUDENT (shrugs): I don’t know.  I just did.

 

STUDENT returns to book.

 

Some teachers might find exchanges like these evidence of an unsuccessful conference with an uncommunicative student. Some teachers might want to go into further questioning: “Well, when did start reading?  How long did you read?  Where were you? Are you on your way to achieving a reading goal?” but it’s easy for that kind of reading conference to quickly turn into an episode of Law and Order: Minors After Midnight pretty quickly.

 

Instead, I tend to find conferences like these home run victories.  This student is looking to end this conversation so that he can get back into reading.  Isn’t that the best compliment of all?

When-do-we-need-to-stop

Granted, if every interaction with the student went like the above, I’d probe further.  However, I look for three key ingredients when I evaluate these kinds of exchanges:

  1. Is this student reading at an increased volume than he or she usually does?  
  2. What’s the student’s body language like before the conference?  Is it a “please don’t talk to me right now” vibe?
  3. Does the student act unsurprised by the idea that he or she read a lot?  

 

If the answer to the three above questions is “yes,” I score that conference as a major reading victory, because:

  1. I already de-incentivize book volume and page count.  Students gain no reward for claiming they have read 20 pages when really they have read 2.  This way, I trust when I see students reading more that that reading is their honest performance.
  2. Students should like reading more than they like talking to us.
  3. The student might not be able to accurately recall his or her extended reading period because he or she entered a state of flow.  I don’t know how I managed to watch three episodes back-to-back of Survivor over the weekend.   Students who don’t know how they managed to read a lot might not know because they entered a state of flow.

 

Okay, so where do you teach this reader in future conferences?  They can’t all be this non-verbal.

 

  1. Use this book as a benchmark of reading excellence for that student.  Ask that student in a few months, “How does the book you are in right now compare to your experience of reading book XYZ?”
  2. Help the student find more books like it using tools like Amazon.com, goodreads, or by talking to other readers. I am always amazed at how few students know how to look up another book by the same author.
  3. Ask the student what mattered to them most about the experience of reading the book.  Ask about the book, but ask about their feelings while reading, too.  Keep in mind that for some readers a distinctive literary pattern emerges across their reading — say, books about kids with cancer, books about troubled homes, books about the apocalypse, books with strong female characters battling high school drama.   For others, it might be about feelings — they liked or disliked a character, they enjoyed the world the author built for them, etc.

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE Gallo Grant.  And she hates being interrupted in the middle of a good book.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MsE.

Varying Paragraph and Sentence Length for Effect

The formula is simple.

 

Pair a simple, declarative sentence in its own paragraph with a longer, more detailed paragraph to follow.  The two paragraphs set against each other will balance the other’s flavors out nicely.

 

Practice it mercilessly in workshop and use sparingly in finished work.

 

As you can see from this blog post, an entire essay or article that’s filled with long-short paragraph variations is going to tire, frustrate, and bore readers easily.   It will also become predictable, just like predicting that LeBron James is going to score 20 points in a game.  The good news, however, is that once you introduce the trick, you can invite readers to look for it across their reading.

 

Mentor texts used: An article about Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation from The New York Times and a chapter from The Nix by Nathan Hill (hardcover pgs. 482-492) Note:  read over these mentor texts before using to see if they are appropriate for your students.  

Teaching this technique – version A:

 

  1. Invite students to freewrite off of each of these starting sentences from these mentors: “It takes seven minutes” or “Today was the day he would quit Elfscape.”
  2. Have students share their work.
  3. Reveal first two paragraphs of the Times article and page 482 from The Nix.  (Note: the vocabulary on this page of The Nix is tough, so I would suggest using it as an example of the technique only.)  
  4. Identify ideal locations for this technique (leads, beginnings of chapters and sections.)
  5. Practice this technique in a freewrite or on a piece in progress.

 

Teaching this technique – version B:

 

  1. Have students read the New York Times article and flash-skim the chapter from The Nix.  Unless you want students to read a sentence that extends for ten pages…
  2. Ask students about how and why these two authors decided to begin paragraph 1 simply and laden paragraph 2 with all the details.  Why might an author decide to describe a character’s decision to stop playing an online role playing game with zero periods?  Why might the Times author give us excruciating detail about Alec Baldwin’s Trump makeup?  To what extent are these “characters” portrayed similar?  Or are the purposes here different?
  3. Invite students to “hack” their own writing or another expository piece (e.g. a history or science textbook) to mimic the long-short style.  Is this an improvement?  Is the writing worse?  Why or why not?

 

Amy Estersohn teaches middle school English in New York.  She has never played an online role playing game and only pretends to know how to play paper and dice role playing games, so reading The Nix wasn’t easy.  Follow her on Twitter at @HMX_MsE.

Refresh the Recommended Reading List

Hey book people: sometimes I feel we could learn a thing or two from the fashion world. (Or, at the very least, the fashion world as I see it from television.)

 

In the fashion world, trends are always changing, and once we’ve heard about something we know it isn’t hot anymore.  We’re quick to pass judgement on each other’s work and open in expressing opinions like that’s so old and I’ve seen that so many times before.

So if we as teachers are still recommending the same old, same old to our students (and yes, I count The Hunger Games and Twilight as same old) IT IS TIME TO UPDATE OUR RECOMMENDED LISTS.

 

I update and provide students with a (mostly) fresh list of recommendations about 3-4 times a year.  At minimum, I provide a beginning of school year recommended reading list for parents at Back to School Night and a summer recommended reading list to help students plan ahead for the long break.  Part of that planning is purely practical: I teach seventh graders, and the students’ reading tastes are going to change dramatically over the course of the school year, so I want  to be prepared.

And sure, part of it is my own boredom with reading, recommending, and thinking about the same books over and over again.  Hence I create new lists for students.

 

If you don’t currently create lists for your students, the easiest ways to make one are:

 

  1. Ask students for recommendations – what books they enjoyed reading and what books they plan to read in the future.
  2. Read books
  3. Steal other readers’ recommended reading lists.  My three favorite lists to steal from are the ALSC recommended titles YALSA’s book recommendations and the suggestions from the students in Nancie Atwell’s school.

 

Below is the recommended reading list I recently generated for my students.  Note that I broke the list into several themed sections (Classmates Recommend, Read With a Friend, and Challenge Books.)

 

You are more than welcome to steal this list in whole or in parts.  The descriptions of books are my own.

 

Classmates Recommend…

 

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

 

This unusually formatted book will have you turning pages as you’ll get to know Maddie and her next door neighbor Olly through drawings, gchats, and short chapters.  Read it before the movie comes out! This book makes readers think more about disobeying authority (adults), falling in love, illness, and family

 

Michael Vey: The Prisoner of Cell 25 by Richard Paul Evans (part of a series)

 

High school student Michael Vey has a special hidden power.  He and some friends realize that there’s a conspiracy of adults trying to keep these powers under control. This book makes readers think more about  power, keeping secrets, and difficult decisions.

 

Masterminds (series) by Gordon Korman

 

Eli and friends live in Serenity, a perfect town without any crime or unemployment.  There’s only one issue: Eli and his friends can’t leave the town, and they begin to discover that there’s a reason why.This book makes readers think more about right/wrong, fighting back against adults, and friendship.

 

Once by Morris Gleitzman

 

It’s right before WWII, and Felix’s parents hid him in a Catholic orphanage so that he wouldn’t be suspected of being a Jewish boy.  Felix, concerned about his parents, escapes the safety of the orphanage and takes off on a dangerous journey to try to find his parents.This book makes readers think more about  risk-taking, growing up, good and evil, and friendship.

 

Gutless by Carl Deuker

 

Brock’s a soccer player, not a football player, but the football’s quarterback wants Brock to try out for the team.  Brock isn’t sure this is the best idea.  This book makes readers think more about bullying, friendship, and the risks of playing sports.

 

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

 

When all the adults on a prison island die in a strange accident, the teens have to decide what to do next.  This books makes readers think more about risk-taking, heroism, good/evil,  and leadership.

Read with a friend!  Books I have multiple copies of

 

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

 

Three female friends and the two boys and one photo that could possibly destroy their friendship.  This book makes readers think more about…. Relationships (romantic and non-romantic), cell phone use, growing up, and apologies.

 

The Seventh Most Important Thing by Shelley Pearsall

 

Arthur Owens threw a brick at an old man’s head and was sentenced to juvie for it.  Now that he’s out, the old man forgives him and asks Arthur to help him complete a strange task.  This book makes readers think more about forgiveness, family, and connections.

 

Chasing Secrets by Gennifer Choldenko

 

Lizzie wants to know why her family’s servant has disappeared.  In order to find him, she has to untangle a web of secrets surrounding the city of San Francisco.  This book makes readers think more about medicine, sexism, racism, and fighting against adult power.

 

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

 

Junior wants to go to a school off of his reservation; his neighbors and friends give him a hard time for acting “white.”  This book makes readers think more about racism, school issues, family, and friendship (especially difficult friendships.)

 

Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson

 

Jade is a black girl in Portland, Oregon who wants to travel the world.  Jade’s guidance counselor signs her up for a mentoring program instead.  This book makes readers think more about racism, healthy and unhealthy relationships, school communities, and how art can help bring people together.

 

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

 

Ghost can run fast, but this tough kid doesn’t know how to be part of a team yet.  This book makes readers think more about healthy and unhealthy relationships, communities and teamwork, and forgiveness.

 

A Matter of Heart by Amy Fellner Dominy

 

Abby’s a competitive swimmer about to try out for the Olympics when she is told by a doctor that swimming too quickly could kill her.  This book makes readers think more about healthy and unhealthy relationships, good and bad risks, and figuring out who you are.

 

The Hypnotists by Gordon Korman

 

Jackson Opus has a strange power — he can hypnotize people to do whatever they want.  Now the brilliant Elias Mako wants to work with Jackson to develop his skill.  This book makes readers think more about power, good/evil, and fighting back.

 

Challenge Books

Longer, tougher, more complex ideas…

 

The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon

 

Daniel and Natasha “bump” into each other and it’s love at first sight.  Was their meeting chance, or was it the universe pushing them together?  This book is by the same author as Everything, Everything, but readers are advised that this book is not a sequel or a companion to E,E.   This book makes readers think more about destiny/fate, love, and immigration.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

 

Starr’s childhood friend Khalil is killed in an unfortunate accident when the police were looking for another suspect.  Khalil’s name is all over the news, and Starr’s private school friends don’t know that she was a witness to the murder.  This book makes readers think more about race, wealth/poverty, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

 

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

 

Two teens are training to become scythes, carrying out their society’s sacred role of determining who lives and who does not.  Scythe training is demanding, rigorous, and there are rebels within the order of Scythes who are looking to change the way death works … forever.  This book makes readers think more about power, death, and right/wrong.

 

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

 

In jail for a crime he didn’t commit, Steve creates a script for a movie that tells the story of his life and his run-in with the criminal justice system.  This book makes readers think more about power, race, art as healing, and the prison system.

 

All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

 

Quinn and Rashad go to the same school but aren’t friends, until a case of violence makes Quinn realize that there’s no such thing as being a neutral bystander.  This book makes readers think more about violence, race, and friendship.

 

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

 

A teen classic — Melinda is considered an outcast at her high school because she called the cops on a party.  This book makes readers think more about rebellion, fighting for what’s right, and the costs of popularity.

 

The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming

 

About 100 years ago, Russia had a royal family that was kicked out and eventually killed.  Learn about the factors that led to the uprising against the Romanov family.  This book makes readers think more about wealth/poverty and war.

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York and a 2016 recipient of the NCTE Gallo Grant.  Follow her on twitter at @HMX_MsE

Audiobooks are Books, Too

Totally honest: only recently did I discover the magic of audiobooks.

 

Audiobooks are magical because they allow me to READ while I am doing other things, like BEING STUCK IN RUSH HOUR TRAFFIC ON THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE.    .

I’ve been using YALSA’S Amazing Audiobooks lists as a starting point for my auditory adventures.  By listening to stories, I’m able to arrive at understandings that I might not get from ink and paper.  For example, when I first read Katherine Applegate’s One and Only Ivan, I felt pity for the Ivan, a gorilla trapped in a shopping mall.  However, when I listened to the book on audio, I heard Ivan proudly talk about “domain.”  I realized then that Ivan is not able to understand his situation well enough to reflect on it the way I (a human adult) do.

Another example is Jason Reynolds’s GHOST, a book about a boy who joins a track team that was love at first page for me when I read it in print.  Guy Lockard’s voice work brings Ghost’s vulnerability to the surface, and his voice for Coach sounds like a teenager trying to impersonate an old man instead of an old man.  As a result, we hear the version of Coach that Ghost tells us about, not Coach as we might hear him if we met him.

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Not just an award winner for the text, but an award winner for the audiobook, too!

My own studies are making me think more about how I can use audiobooks in the classroom.  I have some ideas about how I might bring these treats into the classroom:

 

 

  • Share and compare.  Give students a passage to read silently.  Then play them the audiobook selection for that passage.  Did students hear what they expected to hear?  Did they hear something different?  (The One and Only Ivan and GHOST are terrific mentor texts for this work with middle schoolers; for high school I might recommend a chapter from Wink Poppy Midnight by April Tucholke because the chapters are brief and the book did won an Amazing Audiobooks award.)
  • Inquiry and discussion of  award criteria.  Play a section from an Amazing Audiobook with or without accompanying text.  What makes this reading award-worthy?  Or is it award-worthy? 
  • Create your own mini-audiobook.  Especially if we want students to slow down their reading to notice voice and word choice, giving students an opportunity to read, direct, and/or produce their own mini-audiobooks would invite students to invest in their books and make that sharing public through a podcast or a rehearsed live performance.   Kelly Gallagher already does something similar with the reading minute.

 

 

Do you do any work with audiobooks?  Continue the conversation in the comments!

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York and a recipient of the NCTE Gallo Grant.  Follow her on twitter at @HMX_MsE

6 Gut-Punchers to Read After You Binge-Watch 13 Reasons Why

I got a Netflix subscription just so I could watch the 13 Reasons Why miniseries.13-reasons-why_0

The series is graphic and unsettling and leaves a lot to be talked about.  I haven’t even finished the series yet, but I bet my Scholastic Bonus Points that I have a few students who watched it over spring break and now are itching to read this book and others like it.

Here are a few books to steer readers to now…

friends for life

Friends for Life by Andrew Norriss

This book covers similar topics to 13 Reasons Why, but the plotting, pacing, and development of the topics is catered towards a younger teen audience.  Francis and Jessica become close friends quickly, but there’s a problem: Jessica’s a ghost, and Francis can somehow see her.  As readers learn how Francis can see Jessica, readers are also invited to consider the importance of friendship and reaching out to loved ones in times of need.

backlash

Backlash by Sarah Darer Littman

 

I find myself returning to recommend this book over and over again because it hits so many teen sweet spots.  Once upon a time, Lara and Bree were best friends.  Then Bree started to cyberbully Lara, pushing her to attempt suicide in a highly publicized manner.  Readers watch characters recover from trauma and hear the voices of others who were affected by the ongoing cyberbullying.

 

optimists die first

 

Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen

 

Relevant information for adult readers: Susin Nielsen wrote for Degrassi.  If that’s not enough to pique your interest in her books, I don’t know what is!  (Unless, that is, you’ve never seen an episode of Degrassi.  Fix that!)  Nielsen’s book follows Petula, who feels burdened by guilt over a sibling’s death.  Her healing process involves Jacob, a boy who just moved to town who is keeping some secrets of his own.

 

truth alice

The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu

 

Have you heard about Alice and what she did at that party?  With not one guy, but two?  This fast-paced, multilayered story makes readers think more about empowered female sexuality and the pernicious power of the school rumor mill.

 

gerald faust

Reality Boy by A.S. King

 

From the files of deliciously messed up A.S. King comes a book about Gerald Faust, a boy better known to his high school classmates for his early-childhood antics on a reality TV show.   Gerald can’t escape his well-publicized past, and his parents might as well live in a fictional universe.   A.S. King’s talent as an author is developing some of the cruelest family dynamics known to contemporary literature, and this book ranks right up there for unkind parents.

bang lyga

Bang by Barry Lyga

 

Sebastian, at age four, shot his baby sister Lola by accident.  Now, Sebastian is immersed in homicidal/suicidal ideation.  When a new girl, Aneesa, joins the neighborhood and is unaware of Sebastian’s burning guilt, Sebastian has a chance to remake himself.

 

What books would you recommend to students who enjoyed watching 13 Reasons Why?

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She is a 2016 recipient of the NCTE/ALAN Gallo Grant.  She laments the loss of the cassette tape.

 

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