Category Archives: Lisa

Going Broke Buying Books

Disclaimer: There are countless ways to save money when securing books for your classroom library. I, however, often lack the patience for such measured and responsible procurement of texts. This is my story (and possibly my defense should my husband discover just how much I spend on books).


My husband Nick is a dear man. He has to be, to put up with the amount of time, energy, and hard earned cash I devote to this passion called teaching.

In the 14 years I’ve been at this, or rather the 2 years I’ve been building a genuine classroom library, I have probably spent $4, 398,291 (hyperbolic numbers are my favorite, because I’ve never been good at math).

It often happens before I know what I’m doing. Like those poor souls who sleepwalk and end up in the middle of a busy road in their pajamas, I find myself “just putting a book in my Amazon cart so I remember the title,” or “checking Thriftbooks for a minute (or 27), to see what’s new.”

Hi. My name is Lisa, and I buy a lot of books for other people’s children. 

doryThis “problem” sort of took me by surprise. With my head hanging low, I must admit there was a time, not too long ago, when there were very few books in my classroom. There were very few books in my life period, besides the ones I “taught” year after
year. My classroom was rich in many valuable thoughts, inquires, and experiences before workshop, but it was not full of books.

How, as a teacher of literacy, had I allowed my classroom to become devoid of the very tools of reading I kept suggesting to my students would be their salvation in the face of collegiate ambitions, thematic exploration, and aspirations of world domination?

Apparently, it wasn’t important to me.

Ugh. That reflection looks ugly in print.

I didn’t purposefully create a text desert in my classroom, of course. If someone had said, “Hey, Dennis. You teach English. Where are all the books?” I would have smiled and pointed to the textbooks and countless copies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students bought any books they needed for independent reading, and I happily progressed with assigning reading, providing study guides, giving content quizzes, lather, rinse, repeat. This is what I knew. This is what I had experienced myself. This is how I was taught to teach.

But then, one day, a big rock fell on my head. I dreamt of rows upon rows of book ryan goslingshelves lining the walls of my classroom and students clutching copies of countless titles to their bosoms. Ryan Gosling walked into the room and said, “Hey girl. I really love the work you’re doing for public education. Let’s get those kids reading more. Cool?” When I came to, I was blushing, but more importantly, I knew that my students needed more choice. More challenge. More access to books.

Ok. Not really. But the conclusions I came to after some workshop research, training by the lovely workshop team of Three Teachers Talk, and logical reflection about how I wanted my students to view reading, that part is true.

There is still a very important place for whole class novel work in my classroom. There is still a place for short lists of books with a central theme to get kids working in book clubs. There is still a place for the classic and contemporary. But there is also now a place for a lot more choice right in my classroom, always located just a few steps away.

And though we might not want to believe that we have to hold our kids’ hands and walk them to our bookshelves, instead of trusting them to take their own time to go to the library or while away the hours at the local bookshop, at least in the beginning, we do. We need to make the books so wildly available, that kids can’t help but wade through them in the course of our time together.

Think of elementary classrooms. Books upon books, upon teachers reading aloud books. If books aren’t at home, they are certainly at school, and when kids are learning to read, they are showered with books. Why not shower them with texts when we are trying to reignite that love of reading?

Given time to read, talk about books, formative and summative work around independent novel study, goal setting, book challenges, quick writes on choice reading, daily book talks, a teacher who pours passion about books all over their every class period AND shelves of books three feet away, progress in building and rebuilding readers is very possible, and even, probable.

We can teach children to read, but for reading to become a habit, they need ready access to books. We also know, they need choice, choice, and more choice (thank you a million times for your brilliance, Donalyn Miller).

When it comes down to it, we might not want to believe our students evade the reading we ask them to do, but they often do. Many fake read very, very well. Others simply smile, or avert their gaze, or defiantly say, “I didn’t do it” or “I’m just super busy.”

I’ll put it this way, my dentist hands me floss, but I don’t use it as often as I should. There. I said it. I am a college educated, do-gooder, who knows she should floss…every day. I do not floss every day. I know my teeth will suffer for it. I know when I go to the dentist I feel bad for having to say that I could probably floss more. I know it’s with the best intentions for my own self interest that the professional tells me to do it, but…I don’t do it. I’m just super busy.

Perhaps a bad analogy, but our students don’t always make the right choices when it comes to reading. They prioritize other things. If my dentist were handing me floss every day, chances are good, I’d get in the habit. Should he have to? No. Should I just do it on my own because I know it’s good for me, of course. But, I’m flawed. We all are.

So, at least for awhile, I’m going to care enough about my students teeth, er, reading habits to make it highly visible, readily accessible, and as entertaining as I can.

The payoff just this week is real:

  • Josh is a super smart kid who hadn’t been devoting time to reading. He, like so many others, used to love to read, but had fallen out of the habit. With our 10-15 minutes of reading a day, and my suggestion that he add just 10 minutes before falling asleep each night, Josh is back into books. Major texts, in fact, and just book talked The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss to our a class. A little bit here and a little bit there, made the reading a habit again. I bought the book and handed it to one of his peers who flew through it too.
  • I saw Brianna standing at the bookshelf yesterday morning. Sort of swaying back and forth. I skipped over (ok, I was skipping in my head, but I was excited to help her find something magical).
    “What are you in the market for, my dear.”
    “Uh…I’m not sure. I just read Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. It was really good, but I might be over nonfiction for awhile.”
    “Makes sense. How about a really good story? Try this. Oooo! And this…and I had someone read this one last month. And…this (The Help). Have you read this one yet? Take a look at the reviews in the front from past readers. This is a great book.”
    Brianna was 20 pages into The Help and picked up the book between activities in class that day.
  • The somewhat shocked and surprised smile on JJ’s face when, after book talking Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things: A Novel last week, I put in his hands a copy of her incredible new release Small Great Things. He had asked for my copy a few days later when he finished his latest read, but it had already been checked out. He looked crestfallen. When I saw it yesterday on the new release cart in the library, I checked it out, and hunted JJ down during our resource period. “Wow. Thank you!
  • And this…You might remember Nathan from a few weeks back after he finished A Dog’s Purpose:
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    I was at Barnes and Noble and used one of my gift cards to buy the sequel A Dog’s JourneyI think this smile is worth the expense:

Truth be told, I’m very lucky to work in a district that has put a huge amount of money into funding the classroom libraries of our English department as we’ve moved to workshop. And there are countless ways to put on your thrifty teacher cap and get the texts rolling into your room, if your district isn’t yet on board with choice reading:

  • Write letters to your local bookstores and appeal to their sense of community pride, favorable Yelp reviews, and goodwill to all.
  • Loiter in bookstores and flash your teacher credentials. Sometimes a pleading jessicasmile and/or a small purchase will secure some free or discounted books.
  •  Apply for grants (Nothing says #booklove like free books…next year).
  • Rummage, thrift, estate sale your way through the summer.
  • Gather some research on classroom libraries and get it in the hands of your administrators. You might be surprised.
  • Ask Shana for books. She loves to give away books to fellow workshop teachers.
  • Befriend authors via social media! Jessica is trying her hand at scoring some Matthew Quick books through Shana’s connection. No shame, Jessica! Twirt (twitter flirt, I believe) away!

You don’t necessarily have to spend your own money on books, but I do. Something inside of me saying that I need more. I need more variety. I need more to recommend. I need more books.

I keep telling my husband that I’m helping to inform, inspire, and impassion the electorate. I’m also in charge of the money, so my little addiction should be able to continue a little while longer. I consider you all my support group in this matter. Thank you for your support.

How do you surround your students with books? What titles have you added recently that keep flying off your shelves? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below. 

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Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of friends at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her latest classroom library purchases were The Hate U Giveby Angie Thomas, American Street by Ibi Zoboi,  and Violent Endsthe story of a school shooting told from various perspectives and written by 17 YA Lit. authors.  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 

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Need a Friend? Yup, Me Too.

Our juniors spent last Tuesday morning taking the ACT test, along with every other junior in the state of Wisconsin. I spent the morning watching them take the test. Talk about mind numbing.

“You will now be taking the fourth part of the test in Science. You will have 35 minutes to complete this test. Please open your test booklets and try not to fall out of your chairs after three hours of testing, during which I have listened to you sniffle, shuffle, and sigh to the point of my own mental health crisis. I mean…you may begin.”

On days when I hand out Kleenex and monitor bubble fill in, I long for interactive class periods of inquiry, exchange, and exploration. However, that sometimes is a pipe dream as well.

Lately, it’s been a bit like pulling teeth to get kids to participate. Pushing them to meet their reading goals feels less like inspiring work, and more like drudgery (How much more inspirational do you need me to be with this whole reading gig? Just DO IT already.). Their quarter three blank stares and exhausted sighs have me resisting the urge to fix my vacant eyes right back at them and mouth breathe until they see their reflections in the mirror of my face.

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 At times like these, I am reminded by fellow trench mates that we teachers need love too. I don’t want to feel tired, occasionally demoralized, and ill tempered, but I’m there, and part of the reason is that I know my kids are there too.

Workshop can be legitimately magical. Students reading more than they ever have, writing for authentic audiences, and hearing each other speak deeply and passionately about real life issues through literacy. But, Shana didn’t post 9 Books to Hook Your Holdouts for nothing. Amy had the Tissue Issue and needed to Write When It Was Hard.  Jessica is finding her way in a brand new workshop classroom. And countless sources across the web detail teacher burnout and student engagement struggles.

So when our newest contributor Jessica to 3TT reached out over the weekend with: “You ladies are rockstar teachers. Do you ever have discipline or complacency struggles in your classroom?” I had to smile. And then laugh. And then cry a little. And then…

I was taken back to a conversation with a colleague a few years back, where an offhanded comment poked me right in the teacher feels. We had actually been talking about this very idea – the slump we can all feel when teaching gets somewhat less Stand and Deliver and more, students loitering around the complacency trough.

“Well,” he had said somewhat smugly, “As long as you have engaging lessons, students don’t check out.”

Oh. Really? That’s awesome for you…

Listen, I get his point, and to some extent I agree, of course engagement has to be at the heart of what we do, but from personal experience as a learner, it’s not always possible to engage all of the kids all of the time (collective gasp, coupled with Lisa polishing her resume). And that can be exhausting and frustrating to educators, and disruptive to the class.

But today, I am not here to provide advice for how to move forward with this issue in the classroom (I happen to know for a fact that my 3TT ladies have several posts up their sleeves all about engagement. Stay tuned!).

strong

I’m actually here to quickly remind everyone, because I needed the reminder too, that when you are feeling like you could arrange for Big Bird to walk in the door and hand out cookies to everyone in the class, but no one would crack a smile, you need…friends.

Teacher friends.

In your building, down the hall, gathered at PLC, across the country, on the phone, send a quick note, smile at your neighbors, friends.

trouble

I, for one, am a lucky duck in this department. I work with friends. Dear friends.

Stand up in her wedding, give a quick tearful hug, giggle over buffalo chicken dip, join a bowling league, talk about Ryan Adams, compare Lularoe leggings, grab a drink, bake some cookies, geek out over Out of Print literary shirts, talk about being daddy’s girls, Irish Oatmeal, send each other lip sync videos, eye roll at the same time, laugh first and ask questions later, friends ( I think I hit everyone in the department. Seriously. I love you people). 

So, whenever possible, and especially when you feel like you might voluntarily throw yourself down the stairs rather than walk into 3rd period, find people to spill your guts to. Find people to share your successes and colossal failures with. Friends who share mini lesson ideas and friends who share unbelievable content knowledge. Fresh out of college and boundlessly energetic friends, and experienced, measured, and wise friends. Those who have seen decades in the classroom and those who weren’t born yet when you started teaching.

Take the time to engage with the people you work with, both as educators and as humans. Engagement at work increases when we have friends. Harvard said so.

And if the people you work with don’t do this for you, branch out.

The ladies at 3TT have been WhatsApp-ing (verb I just created) lately. We use voice messages, pictures, texts, and links to talk about classroom questions, vent about burnout, explore possible post ideas, and discuss who’s drinking which variety of wine tonight.

There are always ways to connect with like-minded, similarly leaning, comparably focused educators. And there are ways to connect with challenging, make you reflect on your practice, I can’t believe I used to do that too educators who can help reassure you that you are making the right moves, even when those moves are difficult.

Hand someone a cup of coffee and take a seat.

Open up Twitter and join a #chat.

Send one of the Three Teachers (really five of us now, how cool is that?) an email and we’d be glad to listen. 

Don’t close your door and let handing out Kleenex to kids feel like a highlight of positive, professional interaction.

Friends can help you feel sane, productive, positive, and human again. A few kind words, commiseration, a hug, and a maybe a quick snack.

Little else is needed to take the deep breath necessary and get back to 3rd period.

Except maybe, Spring Break.

We’d love to hear your shout-outs to fellow educators who help you right your ship, stay afloat, and just keep swimming! Please share in the comments below. 

shout out.png

 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of friends at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She almost left the profession in year one, and would have, if not for fellow English teacher Erin Doucette who took Lisa under her wing and taught her the importance of being yourself in the classroom, challenging you students, and celebrating St. Patrick’s Day every year without fail. I love the teacher you are and the teacher you have helped me to become. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum. 


 

Quick Writes That Work

QUICK WRITE

It appears daily on my agenda and often sparks great writing, discussion, and even revision. My bestie Erin said it beautifully: “Quick writes produce pure honesty and they’re a good place for me to “talk” with my students.” The writing is low stakes, the creativity can be high, and we can “talk” with our kids and provide feedback on issues and ideas, over syntax and conventions. Plus, it helps with the endless struggle for volume, volume, volume.

But sometimes, quick writes can end up feeling a bit routine, which is not cool as I am trying to keep writers excited about their writing and producing more and more of it.

writers-block

So, because I’m sometimes known to Google my life (Last weekend my foot hurt after a run and the Mayo Clinic suggested I might have cancer, so there’s that.) I often head to the internet for curricular inspiration.

There are countless sources online that will lead you to quick write topics, if that’s what you are in the market for, and I am often in the market for someone’s fresh thinking to get my students writing when I haven’t left enough time to plan or the same old quick write feels bland.

graves

Quick writes are just the start! 

For example, I was inspired to write this post after I saw our friend Gary Anderson tweeting a journal topic of the day on Twitter. I’ve used several, and loved writing along with my students on his thought provoking prompts.

Here are a few reflections I have on quick writes. The process, their power, and providing writing opportunities to our kids every day.

  1. Link your quick write to what you’re work on in class that day, an essential question you’re studying, or relevant topic to your study. Or don’t! Quick writes can lead naturally into a mini lesson. They can also put that mini lesson on hold as students take off into small group and then passionate/uproarious/contentious whole class discussion. I’ll often have my students go back into their notebooks after discussion to add to their thinking, so even if they didn’t share, they are working with the ideas that class is chewing on and writing more.
  2. Let students write about what inspires them. At the beginning of the year, many students balk at the “opportunity” to write about whatever they like, but by the time you’ve established a rapport and let your students know that they belong to a community of writers, many are excited to be given time to get their thoughts on paper. And when you have them take some time to revise at the end of the writing and share their ideas or powerfully written lines with others, they take more seriously the production of that work.
  3. Give limited choice to guide writing toward a necessary discussion for that day’s mini lesson or topic of discussion. When I do want the quick write to lead into the mini lesson, I try not to lead too much. I want kids to write and discover. I don’t want to slip back into old habits of guiding students to a fixed answer. They feel duped, I feel cheap, the whole thing is a mess. So, when I am heading in a specific direction, I really try to give choice in these instances. Our mini lesson in American Literature the other day was on bias for our argument writing unit. I could have had them write about where they see bias and how it impacts an argument’s credibility. Totally fine. Instead, I asked them to choose:
    • Write on any topic from the perspective of someone who is heavily biased toward a particular outcome. Then, write the same appeal from the opposing viewpoint.
    • Consider the bias of an author you’ve read or a story you know well. How did the bias serve the author? How did the bias impact the story?
    • Defend, challenge, or qualify the idea that media bias is detrimental to a functioning democracy.
  4. Early on, I stole something I heard Amy say during the professional development she and Shana ran at Franklin last year. I always remind my students to “write as much as you can, as fast as you can, as well as you can.”Amy taught me that kids need to outwrite their inner critics, and I’ve coupled that with the discovery that, often times, a student’s inner critic sounds an awful lot like…a teacher. We need to help retrain kids to see the first quick draft of anything as just that, a quick draft. I scrap half of what I write when I consider it for revision. This is something new to most kids, who train themselves to pour writing out on a page and see that as the first, last, and only draft. We work to write quickly, revise in the moment, and later, choose some pieces for further expansion, refinement, and polishing. But in the six or seven minutes I am giving them to write, their job is to write in that moment and to keep moving.
  5. Remind students to write and respond as they see fit. Students can write, jot, draw, change colors, compose a poem…Students often limit themselves unconsciously by the “rules” they have been taught over the years. Quick writes are a place to explore, not fit in the lines or a box. Unless you want to write in boxes.

  6. Have students respond to quotes, images, poems, videos, their own writing (we are doing this today!), the writing of other students, current events, lists, song lyrics, letters to the editor, overhead conversations…You get the idea. Students can creatively explore just about anything and should. Their opportunities for creative expression are often too few and far between. We can be the place where questions, emotions, fears, innovations, and discoveries find a safe place to take root.

Some of my recent favorite topics are below. These are quick writes that generated some fantastic discussion in small groups and whole class debriefs.


From Gary Anderson a few weeks back, I had students choose one and write:

Today…
I am concerned about…
I am upset about…
I do not understand…
I wish I could change…
I am grateful for…


From Austin Kleon’s blog that I started following last week, students took this image in a thousand directions and one class even had a collegiate level discussion on the implications these suggestions (directives? nudgings?) could have for society:

goethe


I will sometimes choose several images and have my students respond to one, or try to tie them together, or imagine they are the photographer, or…whatever best suits our purpose for that day. The exploration of the human condition is reason enough to put pen to paper. “Tell this story” is a great search term to yield a wide variety of results.

tell-this-story-2


Quick writes can even be 2-3 minute reflections on the simplest of reading adventures. At the start of the new calendar year, I had my kids search for what their lives would hold in 2017, according to their independent novels.

quick-write

Have a favorite quick write topic that gets the pens moving in your classroom? Please share your ideas and insights in the comments below! 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English educating gods and goddesses at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. She has no fewer than six quick write journals going at once, mostly due to her inability to settle on spiral vs. bound. She added to Goethe’s list that we should smile at the thought of someone each and every day. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 

Feel Good Friday

It’s been a looooooong week.

We had parent teacher conferences on Monday night. Monday night. It felt a little cruel and usual at the time. Then it just felt like this week might never end.

But end it has. Here we are..FRIDAY!

I feel like celebrating, because this, my friends, has been a week when feel good moments snuck up on my classroom when I was almost too sleepy to notice.

Such as…

Logan is a self proclaimed sports man.

His dad teaches PE here at Franklin and coaches our wildly successful football team. I believe Logan said not long ago that he “lives for sports.” But this week, it seems, he’s been living for books.

So far this year, Logan has completed four books ranging from Redeployment by Phil Klay to Sky on Fire by Emmy Laybourne. He is currently eating up Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, so much so that he enthusiastically book talked it this week before he even finished it.

Last class period, before the bell rang, I let Logan know that he needed to run to guidance and clear up a little confusion around signing up for AP tests. To my heart’s delight, Logan said the following words:

“Can I go after reading time? I want to read first.”

Amen.

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Logan devouring Dark Matter 


Priyanka stopped by my desk only moments ago.

association“Mrs. Dennis, do you remember emailing me about my one pager this week? You asked how I was liking The Association of Small Bombs.”

“I do! I was wondering how it’s going. You’re the first to read it and I was so excited to get that free copy at NCTE.”

“I LOVE it. You know how sometimes you aren’t sure what the theme of a book is? Like, you have to work to find it? This book’s theme IS THE COVER! All of these intricate stories and characters coming together. I can’t put this down.”

“Making you think, hmmmmm?”


Nathan was struggling to read at the start of the year.

Not his thing, he told me. Then…he found Suzanne Young’s The Program series. He couldn’t put it down and flew through all three books.

Then he launched into A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron. He finished it in class today.

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This was Nathan at the end of class. A fellow student asked him if he was ok.

“It was just…SO good.”

A few moments later, Nathan was at the bookshelf returning the text. And I observed, “Nathan, you look like a man without a country. You ok?”

“Mrs. Dennis, I just found out this book has a sequel. I wanted to read The Kite Runner next, but…a sequel. I want to read that now too!”

“How about I give you The Kite Runner while you wait to get the next Cameron book and you read that quick over the long weekend. You won’t be able to put this that down either.”

“Oooooo…good idea. Yeah, can you get me a copy?”

(Clapping excitedly in her head, Mrs. Dennis sprints next door to get a copy of The Kite Runner. He’s reading!!) 


We are fighting fake news in our classrooms.

Today, the posters I had made of the IFLA’s infographic on how to vet sources and avoid getting duped by fake news got delivered. I’m geeking out over these posters.

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Lastly, this just made me laugh out loud.

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Happy Friday, everyone!

What made you smile this week? Please share in the comments below! 

 

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English superheros at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Fridays make her happy, but so do books that smell old, buffets that include ice cream for dessert, and infographics made into classroom posters. 

 

Stop the Slaughter: Lifeless Literary Analysis

Teaching is a reflective practice. If you’re doing it right, that is.

We question, we research, we dig deep to update, invigorate, and refresh our work on a daily basis. And while this can be utterly exhausting (I think we need to investigate the ingenious cultural practice of siestas), it’s also exciting. As we push ourselves to grow and change as teachers, we impart that commitment to be better to our students.

I remember when I was student teaching several (cough, cough) years ago. The English and Social Studies departments shared an enormous office, and I was lucky enough to be afforded some space in that room to work. The fresh-faced 21 year old with boundless energy and enthusiasm for making a difference and connecting with “kids” (I was teaching 18 year olds. I’m pretty sure I was in elementary school with one of my students).

Then, I met *Mr. Pumblechook. (Names have been changed to protect the identities of very nice, well meaning people whose educational practices make me shutter.)

Pumblechook was a social studies teacher with perhaps six or seven years under his belt. He had a bright smile, hearty laugh, great expectations for his students (I had to. Thanks Dickens) and a file cabinet.

But this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury ( got serious quick, didn’t I?)this was no ordinary file cabinet. For in this file cabinet was a collection of folders. And in those folders were lesson plans.

One folder for each day of the year containing (because I pretended to be impressed with his organization and asked to see): a lesson plan, several worksheets to make copies of (even leftover handouts from the year before), and overhead slides of prewritten notes.

Was I student teaching in 1962? No.
Was I student teaching under a dictatorial regime? No.

This was 2002, people. Suburban Milwaukee.

And every time I tell this story to fellow educators, they nod, and I hear similar stories of educators from days gone by. Worksheet after worksheet, recorded lessons from first hour played to subsequent hours, teachers knitting in the back of the room, and countless acts of readicide across the land. Is seems Mr. Pumblechook had good historical precedent for imparting knowledge to children by opening up their brains and pouring in the same ideas year after year without regard to their role in that programming or real world applications of classroom material.

Enter: My classroom last week.

My AP students are armpit deep (my quip to convey complexity over the waist, but less perilous than the nose) in literary analysis. I wrote last week about our journey with diction analysis, as we got down and dirty with how an author conveys meaning with words.

Along my merry way I skipped, confident in this unit that I’ve taught several times, the tweaks I’d made in planning it for this year (updated mentors, current event references, jokes that students last year hadn’t heard yet – he he), and last year’s solid AP test scores. Not quite a folder for each day, but not too terribly far off either.

Then, I read Rebekah O’Dell’s post from Moving Writer’s, “Three Reasons Literary Analysis Must be Authentic.”

Gulp. Authentic.

I (shamefully) hadn’t really thought of that. I was preparing my students for the AP Language test. Wasn’t that authentic enough?

Of course, the skills of analysis are invaluable. Critical thinking across the curriculum is bolstered by the development of analysis skills which help students recognize patterns, decode information, compare and contrast concepts, classify elements under examination, and utilize inferences to support ideas. As one of the elements utilized by the College Board to determine students’ readiness for college level curriculum in English, rhetorical analysis is obviously important. The traditional essay format is required to pass this test and the analytical skills necessary to do so are a benefit to students far beyond the classroom.

But here’s the rub…

Even AP readers are looking for students to write outside the box. Yes, the skills of analysis must be present. But top scoring papers are those that challenge convention, take risks, and (I’m hanging my head in shame here) speak to a more authentic and far-reaching audience.

O’Dell’s post, like literary providence, reminded me that I needed to climb out of my car with tinted windows (I’m in here doing my thing. Nothing to see here) and pick up a mirror to reflect why I was doing what I was doing.

Her 3 key reflections on teaching literary analysis hit me right between the pencils. She reminds us that:

  1. Our job isn’t to produce English teachers.
  2. Writers need models in order to write.
  3. The traditional academic, literary analysis essay hurts student writing.

So,  am I hurting my students with what I’ve been doing? Absolutely not.
Could it be better? Absolutely, Mr. Pumblechook, because they might be better at formulaic writing with what I’ve been working on, but we’ve taken some steps back in their growth as authentic writers.

To address each of O’Dell’s points, which I felt compelled to do immediately (I had the mirror up and didn’t like what I was seeing), I changed some plans for this week and next.

  1. Our job isn’t to produce English teachers: I have to tell myself this more and more. O’Dell reminds us that 2% of college students major in English, and of those 2%, only 1% will enter professional academics.

    It did occur to me though, that our students will need to engage with the world around them and likely need to synthesize ideas in order to share them. As such, I had my kids choose editorials on current events and topics of interest to present 1-2 minute speeches on. They needed to make claims about how the author achieved his/her purpose through DIDLS.The fluency of their writing for these speeches has blown me away. We’d been “writing analysis” last week, but none had the same voice, passion, or deep analysis that these had. Speaking the analysis had the power to remove the formula. Students concentrated on engaging their audience in a way that a practice AP prompt could not replicate.

    When my students sat down to write a full AP analysis practice today, I reminded them of how they had to work to capture the audience of their peers through their speeches, and that the nameless/faceless AP writers still wanted that same engagement. They want students to be successful on the test. This exercise seemed to solidify that and afford my kids the opportunity to reignite that natural voice we have been working with all year.

    img_0180

    Katie presents her editorial analysis speech this morning

    speech-form

    A quick Google form that I fill out as students are speaking provides immediate feedback via email 

    speech-feedback

    A sample of the detailed feedback on both content (helps with literary analysis prep) and public speaking (a real life skill for all)

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    Students give peer feedback on the rhetorical analysis they heard, as well as the speech overall. 

  2. Writers need models in order to write: I’ve been using student samples from AP to accompany the prompts we’ve been analyzing for years. That’s honestly helpful. I have students score them and discuss with peers what constitutes a high, middle, and unacceptable essay according to AP so they can apply or avoid the same ideas.

    However, those high scoring essays were always met by my students with comments that suggested that top scoring essays held some undefinable magical quality.

    What is it? Style.

    Those essays, as I said earlier, not only develop complex ideas, but they do so in a way that keeps the reader engaged.To work with this, I’m going to share with my students some of the literary analysis that O’Dell’s post links to as well. The Atlantic‘s “By Heart” where authors share their insights on their own favorite passages in literature, is a website that makes literary analysis real, full of voice, and peppered with references to texts/authors my students know.
    My post a few weeks back on Arts and Letters Daily is another place we’re going to explore. How do writers write about texts without using a five paragraph essay? How can we, as Penny Kittle says, stand on their shoulders as writers and work to write as they do?

    al-daily

  3. The traditional academic, literary analysis essay hurts student writing: We want our students to be able to master the structure and form, but yet we want them them to break free of it too.I’ve often told my kids over the years that you have to know the rules in order to effectively break them.

    Maybe it’s true. Maybe, I just don’t have them break them soon enough and get to that authentic voice for an authentic audience.Because there, in the place where they have something to say with confidence, passion, precision, and critical thoughts developed by honed skills, will they bridge the gap between possessing the skills we want them to master and making their writing shine with the creative use of those same skills.

And now…it’s Wednesday morning and the lovely Tricia Ebarvia just ran a post about authentic audience through blogging. I’m headed there next.

I should just carry a mirror. I need it. Always.

How do you help move students move beyond the traditional literary analysis? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below! 


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of English superheros at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. A joke her students haven’t heard yet, but soon will, is:  Why did the librarian miss the conference? She was overbooked. Her students are sure to chuckle, if not pumblechook (used as a verb with creative credit to Dickens), at that one. 

 

 

 

What Will You Read Next?

I’m always on the lookout for ways to keep moving my readers forward. To stave off the lethargy that unrelenting mid-forties temperatures and 17 weeks of gray skies (winter makes me hyperbolic) can leave in a classroom. The novelty of a new year, with its resolutions and fresh semester, has succumb to the bleak midwinter pall of third quarter and we need something that says, “If that groundhog claims six more weeks of winter (rat-face that he is), we’re going to need a plan…and a good book or two.”

Well, thank goodness I have an unhealthy addiction to Twitter (Ummm…Cornelius Minor just started following me last night. I’m going to need to step up my game. Significantly).  Years ago, it was Pinterest, but that was back when I had time to scroll and save ‘Best Brunch Recipes to Feed a Hangry Crowd’ and ’19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat’ (not to say I couldn’t still use both).

My scrolling these days, however, is far more literary in focus and professional in nature (19 Ways to Burn Booty Fat for Educators – Conferring as Cardio). Seriously though, Twitter has led me to countless quick write topics, mentor text ideas, blogs to follow, inspirational quotes, professional development opportunities, booklists, laughs, collegial exchanges, and pedagogical articles to stretch my practice. #TrachersWin, #LoveToLearn, #StrongThumbs, #TwitterScrollingSavesLives.

A few days back, Penny Kittle posted this photo:

I quickly screenshotted the image to replicate in my room. This visual reminder of where we’re headed (another book and/or a swing toward spring) will provide the push forward we need. Get it on the wall!

My students needed something to set their sights on, so I asked them to take a look at their ‘I Want to Read List’ and choose what their next reading would be. This wouldn’t just be a goal to finish our current texts, but would also give us something to look forward to.

I encouraged students to take this as an opportunity to challenge themselves outside what they have been consistently reading, either in complexity or genre, and select a book they were excited to get their hands on.

Each student then took an index card, on which went the name of the book, the author, and the date they plan to start this next text.


My aide, an artistic genius, drew the book that would be the center our our display (It even has dozens of book titles written on the first page – I LOVE it, Hailey!) and started arranging the ‘Next Text’ cards around it. The whole back wall of my classroom is going to be a sea of texts we can look forward to.

I’m loving my current read (Shout Out: #3TTTBookClub – Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things), but I too will be adding a card: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

(A freak and serious arrest of my artistic development in the second grade prevents me from sharing my card with you. Please imagine it’s simplistic beauty and that might help me create something wall worthy)


Let’s Get Excited About Where We Are Heading! What Will You Read Next? Please leave your text choices in the comments below. Happy Friday. 


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

15 Reasons to Read as Written by High School Seniors

I was giving my thumb a workout last week on Twitter, scrolling past political fallacies and pundit reports, quips from Ellen about cats, and sad attempts by the Packers organization to distract themselves from their lack of big plans this Super Bowl Weekend (single tear running down my cheek) and I came across an irresistible link: 15 Reasons Why You Should Read.

Aaaaaaand, I’m hooked.
Click.
Scroll.

And what to my wondering eyes should appear, but 15 reasons to read, linked in individual blog posts (wait for it!), written by students for their Senior English Seminar class blog and inspired by Kelly Gallagher’s Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School.

A little investigation had me scrolling (no wonder my right eye has been twitching for two months…I may need an eyepatch soon) through the class blog of, English educator and doctoral candidate at Fordham University, Lauren Zucker’s third period students, whose sweet smiles look just like the seniors in my own classroom: five parts confidence, fifteen parts senioritis, three parts fear, two parts energy drink, and boundless potential.

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The possibilities with these blogs are endless:

  • Have your students read through them and reflect on one that stands out to investigate further.
  • Put just the rules up on the board and generate some discussion on initial impressions, connections, etc.
  • Comment on the student posts with personal experiences to connect student blogger to student in your classroom.
  • Have students write their own blog posts about the benefits of reading.
  • Challenge students to synthesize some of the logos from these blog posts into an oral defense of the endless beauty that is reading.

Below, brief explorations of each reason to read. I loved diving into this student thinking and connecting their ideas to my classroom.

  1. Reading Improves Your Social Understanding by Andrew Zayas 

    Andrew speaks to a common theme in high schools across America : We live and work in bubbles. As I suggest to my students, reading affords you the opportunity to live lives, solve problems, and meet people you may not have even considered before. Those experiences can provide, as Andrew suggests, “an unlimited source of social knowledge,” that is invaluable in a time when people need to understand one another better if we ever hope to overcome all that divides us.

  2. Reading Reduces Your Stress by Avery Semkow


    Avery explores a study by the University of Sussex in which test subjects were taken through several activities to elevate their stress levels. Reading silently for only six minutes slowed the subjects’ heart rate and relaxed muscles to a level of stress that was even lower than before they started. SIX MINUTES! When student sit in our classrooms and read for ten minutes, a veritable spa service with those four extra minutes, we are helping them to calm, focus, center. Namaste, fellow readers. Let’s do our hearts some good.

  3. Reading Helps You Sleep Better by Ben Tyler

    Similar to the study above, Ben’s piece suggests that reading, again for as few as six minutes, can help you fall asleep much faster. I’m not sure I love what this means for my classroom (at 7:20 a.m.), but I know it to be true in my own life. Or maybe that’s the full time job and a preschooler at home. But seriously, our students need more and better sleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, only 15% of high school students get the recommended eight hours of sleep each night. If we can’t get them to bed sooner, at least we can help them fall asleep faster (and without glowing phones in their faces). Challenge your students to start small and commit to heading to bed with their books to read for even five minutes. It’s like a certain snack crisp that comes in a tube…bet you can’t read for just five minutes.

  4. Reading Develops Empathy by Skylar Giarusso

    If there is one thing our world needs right this very minute, it’s more empathy. Not sympathy, not apathy, but empathy. The words of Atticus Finch ring more and more true each time I read them. If we could all just “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it,”  I think we could benefit from the shared perspectives that promote more patience, tolerance, and civil discourse.

  5. Audiobooks Are Another Great Option by Thomas Hamrah

    Let’s get this out of the way – I have never listened to an audiobook. Not because I don’t want to, but mostly because I haven’t broken my longstanding addiction to NPR, so most of my car time is either spent listening to Morning Edition or, if Ellie is in the car, “Let it Go” from Frozen. What’s interesting to me is that Thomas explores the idea that students think listening to an audiobook is cheating, but like most things, it’s only cheating if you don’t do the actual work. Attentive listening is a necessary life skill, one we promote in the classroom as it is often underdeveloped in our students (Let’s get real. Many adults need more work at listening too. Listen first. Think of a response and talk later). Stories are meant to be heard. Listening isn’t cheating.

  6. Reading Shapes Your Personality by Tori Murry

    Tory takes her self described “fascination with psychology” and uses the same study as Skylar but moves her conclusions in another direction. The class discussed which parts of your personality are genetically linked to relatives and which parts you can craft. I know that adolescence finds our students at the prime point in their lives to become independent thinkers, and thereby, independent people. I’d like to believe that I’m equal parts Elizabeth Bennett, Mary Anne Spier, Jo March (though I’m probably more of a Meg, so room to grow in spirit there), Offred, and the Lorax. I think it would be a blast to have students help support elements of their personalities with book characters.

  7. Reading is Fun by John Miele

    I loved that John explored how reading can challenge you to solve a mystery, allow you to escape reality, and be a “part of something” all at the same time. I’ve seen it happen in my room. I gushed so long and hard about A Monster Calls, that I now have a group of about 25 students that want to meet on a Saturday at the movie theater to see it together. “We can go to the movie and then get coffee. You know…be collegiate and talk about whether or not the movie does the book justice.” Fun! In addition, that social element can be defining. “Everyone” read R.L. Stine when I was a kid. Our students “all” read Harry Potter. Books promote belonging and genuine belonging promotes positive feelings. This is at the heart of my classroom and I may be biased, but it is fun.

  8. Reading Will Make You Live Longer by Maeson Nolan

    I’m going to need extra years in my life to read all the books on my “next up” list, that’s for sure, so if a study from Yale is telling me that reading 3.5 hours per week will add two years to my live, I’ll dismiss my misgivings about sample size, variables, and math in general (never been my strong suit anyway). 730 days is a lot of reading. Now, I just need to get Yale to do a study on beach reading.

  9. Choice Encourages Reading by Nicole Kudelka

    Choice is nothing new to 3TT, but what struck me about this perspective was the way one of Nicole’s classmates phrased her insights on why choice matters: “Assigned books become more of a obstacle, and shortcuts are taken because the grade is more important than the actual book.” Amy’s post on choice yesterday, shared this same sentiment: When we “make kids read a book,” we might as well mandate that they enjoy it while we’re at it. My honors kids, by and large, didn’t read more when I assigned nine whole class novels, they just got better at convincing me they read nine books. Cultural literacy and choice can coexist, they need not be mutually exclusive, so we must work to increase choice to build volume and then push for complexities (classic or not). Penny Kittle says that we must first engage in order to build volume, then complexity can follow.

  10. Reading Doubles Your Vocabulary by Brian Sayre

    A voluminous lexicon can be procured through bibliophilic tendencies. Win.

  11. Reading Preserves Your Memory by Claire Blass

    If I am going to live two years longer, I’d like to remember those years, and all that came before. No surprise, that stimulating your brain with books can help sharpen brain function. In fact, I told my classes today before silent reading that I was presenting them with an opportunity to not only be smarter, but think smarter. Seriously, will my benevolence ever cease?

  12. Just Ten Minutes of Reading Yields Better Reading by Griffen Klauser

    Griffen explores the idea that 10 minutes of reading per day (again, classes, you are welcome) is a stepping stone. In his own small experiment over Thanksgiving break, he challenged himself to read just ten minutes per day. By the end of break, he read 90 minutes in one day because he was so “into” his book. As the brain is a muscle, it needs training. I’m never going to make it through a sixty minute spin class if I haven’t exercised in months. I’m never going to finish 601 pages in East of Eden if I don’t keep after it in small chunks. And if I could give two hoots about what I’m reading, I’m not even going to make ten minutes a day for it. So, please see #9.

  13. More Reading = Better Writing by Nick Frasco

    “Reading molds your writing style.” Preach, Nick. Preach.

  14. Reading Changes Your Perspective by Noah Slakter

    I love that Noah’s insights run completely contrary to my piece Books Can’t Be Bullied. He argues that the text means nothing without a reader to understand it, and that understanding can vary from person to person (Transactional Theory), anyone?. I think back to my earliest days of teaching. Five sections of freshmen per day. Five days per week. It’s the year I developed my saying about supporting an opinion on a text with text evidence: “As long as you don’t tell me it’s about a giraffe (as I have never read something solely about a giraffe), you’re right.” Their opinions varied as widely as their converse shoe color, so we learned to synthesize those perspectives to get at meaning. Did opinions change? Certainly. Did students grow in hearing the varying perspectives of their classmates? Certainly.

  15. Reading Gives Your Brain a Workout by Samantha Bernstein

    Reading these 15 pieces certainly gave my brain a workout! I’m proof that it’s true. I also loved Samantha’s voice when she said, “The mental task of reading words on a page, processing them, hearing the voice in your head, creating a picture in your mind, and following a plot is not only a mouthful but a nice stretch for your noggin.” She encourages us all to show our brains “some love.” I love it.

If you’d like to read the student blogs in their entirety or pass along the readings to colleagues and students, take a look at each of the pieces here. And don’t forget to follow Lauren @LGZreader for more great ideas and insights. If you want to take a look at how she’s having her students promote their work on Twitter, take a look at #SESNH.


Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language and Honors/Pre-AP Sophomores, while also leading the fearless English department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She is a firm believer that a youthful spirit, a kind heart, a big smile, and a good book can ease most of life’s more troublesome quarrels. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum.

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