Advertisements

Category Archives: Amy Estersohn

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.

Advertisements

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.

41oUcSnuwoL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

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.

 

What Puzzles Can Teach Us

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

IMG_20170310_160612841_HDR

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: 

IMG_20170310_160605757_HDR (1)

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

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.

IMG_20170303_075827356

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

 

 

Heinemann

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

Literacy & NCTE

The official blog of the National Council of Teachers of English

kelly's blog - Kelly Gallagher

Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

Moving Writers

Move the writing. Move the writer.

Blog | The Educator Collaborative Community

Voices of Educators Making a Difference

The Paper Graders

Teachers thinking about teaching, education, technology and anything else that bugs us.

Ethical ELA

conversations on the ethics of teaching English

%d bloggers like this: