Category Archives: Pam McMartin

Every Child Matters and Sharing the Stories that Matter

residential-school-books-display_origEarlier this week we observed Orange Shirt Day at my school. Orange Shirt day is a day to recognize, remember, and reflect on the many Indigenous children who were taken away from their homes to live in residential schools. The residential school system has a dark legacy in Canada and the United States and the after effects still ripple through Indigenous communities today. In fact, the last residential school located in Saskatchewan did not close its doors until 1996 – a fact that is always shocking to my students when I share it with them.

The tagline of Orange Shirt Day is Every Child Matters and it is a tagline that has resonated with me as I participated in Orange Shirt Day, as we ran in the Terry Fox run as a school to raise money for cancer research, and as I plan with my student council for National Coming Out day on October 11th. While we promote the message that Every Child Matters and we hope our students feel that way as they leave our classrooms, the reality is that in the current world political climate and with the news stories our students are surrounded with each day, it is so easy for our female students, our LGBTQ students, our minority students, our refugee students, or any of our students who feel a little different to feel like they do not matter.

Last year I had the privilege of seeing author Thomas King speak at a conference. Thomas King is an American-Canadian First Nations author who has written numerous novels dealing with the First Nations experience. In his session, King was asked if he believed that story has the power to enact change in the world and his answer resonated with me. King answered that if you had asked him that question years ago, he would have answered with a firm yes, but now that he is older, he can not answer the same way. He was, like so many First Nations people, angry and fed up with the government’s inaction to follow through with promises they had made during the last election. He said that story is powerful, but often not enough and sometimes you just need to get angry and speak your mind. His final point was that if you are going to use story to change the world, you better find those voices that are strong, angry, and give voice to the voiceless because those are the stories with power.

King’s answer has stuck with me as I feel like too often I have used the empty platitude that “stories can change the world” with my students, but then I look at the stories they are being shared and the voices are often so heterogenous and not reflective of their voices and their concerns.

So, I have started a quest to diversify the stories I introduce to my students and to find those angry voices, those suppressed voices, and the voices that speak for them. In this post I will introduce you to a few of these powerful stories and will share others I discover in later blog posts.

The Inconvenient Indian: Thomas King

This powerful work is King’s reflection on what it means to be Native in modern North American. He discusses the historical events that have so impacted his people, but also ruminates on how popular culture has served to frame the narrative that many First Nations people are stuck in. King does not shy away from exploring the darker parts of history in this work, so it would be most suitable for Grades 10-12 students.

We Should All Be Feminists: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ngozi Adichie’s name may sound familiar. Perhaps you have seen her powerful TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story  (I love to use this TED talk to spark discussion about the missing voices), or have read her beautiful novel Half a Yellow Sun. Her work We Should All Be Feminists is a short piece, an extended essay, but it is an important exploration of the need for Feminism in the 21st century and how 21st century feminism must be one of inclusion and awareness. In fact, the Swedish government felt that this book held such an important voice for today’s youth that in 2015 they decided to give every 16 year old in their country a copy. We have used this book with Grades 8-12 students at our school and how found content accessible to all age levels in the range.

These are just two of many amazing books that share the voices and stories of people with powerful and important messages. Over the next few months, I will share some more I have come across and I would love it if you could share some of your own suggested titles in the comments below!

To read more about harnessing student voice in a time of political unrest and fear, check out Lisa Dennis’ powerful post.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, Canada. She is currently on a quest to help empower student voice through reading and writing and welcomes any suggestions you may have in regards to either.  Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

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Summer Time Writing Inspiration

Up here in Canada, we are not quite on summer vacation like many of my colleagues to the south, but we are firmly at that time of year where our minds are more in the next school year than the current one. As we are invigilating our year end exams and saying goodbye to our Grade 12 students, the minds of myself and many of my colleagues are already turned to planning for the next group of students we will be working with in the fall.

While an important part of summer is taking the time to relax, recharge, and delve into my growing pile of guilty pleasure books for reading, I always look forward to the time summer gives me to catch up on my professional reading.

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The Creativity Project – complete with a barcode from my school library!

One such resource that I am so excited to delve into over summer break is The Creativity Project written by Colby Sharp. Colby Sharp may be a familiar name to those of us who have embraced the works of Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild in our classroom practice as he is, among many of his other amazing contributions to the world of education, one of the co-bloggers on the Nerdy Book Club blog.

What has me so excited about this resource is that it combines two of my favourite things and two of the most magical elements of a creative writing class – exciting writing prompts and engaging mentor texts.

In The Creativity Project, Colby Sharp reached out to some of the best authors in the juvenile fiction and YA world – the ones our students are loving and reading- and asked them to create a writing prompt for his book. Contributors to his project include authors such as Kate DiCamillo, Mariko Tamaki, and Lemony Snicket to name just a few. He then shared the prompt of one author with another author and had them write a piece inspired by the prompt for the book. The end result is a book not only chock full of prompts, but also with mentor text gold. After the prompts themselves, the author who created the prompt provides a brief explanation for their inspiration for their prompt, which provides a lovely window into where authors get their inspiration from. The responses to the prompts are honest and raw, humorous and hilarious. There are short stories, poems, and graphic novel panels. What is most wonderful of all is the fact that the pieces are not the final polished pieces, rather they are evidence of published authors engaging in the very tasks we ask our students to do – take a prompt, run with it, and see where it takes you. For another great post on writing prompts, check this one out.

This summer I am hoping to use the Creativity Project to rekindle my own creativity and to use the prompts to get writing again. If I am feeling particularly brave in my next summer blog post, maybe I will share something I have written with you. The next school year, I am excited to see how this book can be used to inspire my students to write.

Pam McMartin is jealously reading the blog posts of her colleagues already on summer break and dreaming of the summer sun, which has been rather absent lately at her school just outside of rainy Vancouver, British Columbia. Her summer plans involve enjoying letting go of the daily schedule, slowing down and enjoying time with her family, and hopefully writing on prompt after prompt from Colby Sharp’s book. Find Pam on Twitter @psmcmartin.

Using Technology to Extend Reader’s Advisory

While I do teach one class of Senior English and one class of AP Capstone Seminar, the majority of my job is actually as the Teacher Librarian in our Senior School (Grades 6-12). As a Teacher Librarian, I spend a lot of time focusing on Reader’s Advisory as students stop by the library looking for a book to read.

Reader’s Advisory can take some time and is often about asking the right questions. While some students come to the library with a clear picture of what they want to read, more often than not, students have a vague notion of what they are looking for or have no idea at all. Sometimes when students enter the library they have a clear goal in mind, but more often I come across students mindlessly wandering the shelves because they want a book (or have been told they have to get a book), but really have no clue what they are looking for. These students may be in a reading rut and nothing is inspiring them. When I encounter these students, I always start with questions such as: what is the last thing you read that you really enjoyed? What did you like about that book? What didn’t you like about the book? Sometimes the questioning period is short and I have just the right book for the student, but sometimes the process can take much longer with every suggestion I give being turned down. While my role in Reader’s Advisory can be an important one, often the best advisors when it comes to helping students find their next great read is not me, rather it is their peers. While it is important that we as teachers and librarians are reading the books our students are reading and while it is important that we are able to recommend books to students, it is also equally as important that we are creating a culture of reading in our libraries and in our classrooms where our students are sharing the books they love with their peers and where they are engaging in Reader’s Advisory by recommending books to each other.

To read some more great ideas about creating a culture of reading in your school and your classroom, check out Melissa Sethna’s post on the first steps you can take in transforming a culture.

While some of the best Reader’s Advisory between students happens in the casual conversations in the library or in the classroom or in the excited moments when a student just has to share this amazing book he or she has been reading, technology can also help us extend our reading culture beyond the walls of the classroom and the school itself. At our school, we have been using technology in an exciting way to help extend the conversations around books beyond the school walls.

Over the past few years, our English department has been using Biblionasium and Goodreads to broaden our reading community and to help our students engage in discussions about reading and to connect to Reader’s Advisory moments in larger communities.

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Some of our Grade 6 and 7 students using Biblionasium to write reviews and recommendations about their favourite books.

 

With our Grades 6 and 7 students, we have introduced Biblionasium. Biblionasium is a free social book sharing platform for younger students (there is a paid version, but the only real added feature to this version is that it allows you to link your Biblionasium class with your library catalogue). It allows teachers to create online reading communities. At our school, our Grade 6 and 7 students all belong to our online Biblionasium community that has been set up by their English teachers and by myself. On Biblionasium, students can log the books they have read by placing them on their own virtual bookshelves, can write reviews of these books, can place books on the group’s virtual book shelf to allow other students to see them, and they can also recommend books to other students. As well, the teachers in the group can send book recommendations to the whole class or to specific students. Because it is a program designed for elementary students, Biblionasium confines students to the class that was set up by the teachers and students can not interact with other users on the site. This allows students to engage with their classmates in their Biblionasium group, but does not open them up to a larger community of strangers.

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Page 1 of many (we have had this group going since 2014!) of our Grades 8-12 Goodreads reading group Recommended Reads bookshelf.

With our Grades 8-12 students, we have moved from Biblionasium to Goodreads, another free platform. While many teachers use Goodreads for their own reading, they may not realize that is also allows you to create groups that you can use in your classes. It is this feature we use with our students. We have created a private group for our Grades 8-12 students and for teachers at our school. Much like the Biblionasium group, this group is a place for our students to place the books they have read on their shelves, to share books on the group shelves, to recommend books to each other and to write reviews. The group itself if private, which means only our students and teachers can access it and our shared bookshelves. Unlike Biblionasium, however, the reviews that the students write on Goodreads are visible to the larger Goodreads community. While this may not be ideal for younger students, for our older students it has extended their Reader’s Advisory community in many profound ways. When they write book reviews for the Goodreads community, they are contributing to a larger global discussion about books and when they are looking for book recommendations, they can tap into the reviews and suggestions of a huge community of passionate readers. This not only gives them the experience of writing for a real audience, and access to many amazing mentor texts for book reviews written by other people in the Goodreads community, it also gives them membership into a vast group of people who love to talk about books. This year one of my Grade 11 students discovered that Emma Watson, her favourite actress, is extremely active on Goodreads and, in fact, runs her own feminist book club through the site. My student quickly joined this club and was soon reading her way through Emma’s reading list and engaging in amazing online conversations with other members of Emma Watson’s book club. She was soon bringing these conversations into the classroom and quickly had a whole crew of students – male and female- avidly reading Emma Watson’s recommended books and debating them every chance they could get. I tell you, there is nothing as exciting as walking into a classroom full of students planning their Alias Grace Netflix binge watching session because they just finished reading the book with Emma Watson’s bookclub and they need to watch the Netflix series to see if it did it the book justice in order to join in on the conversation going on in the Goodreads group on this very topic.

Using technology to extend the classroom reading community can have some challenges and does require a certain amount of work with students in regards to interacting with others in the digital environment. The use of technology through reading community sites like Biblionasium and Goodreads can be a powerful way to have students extend their reading community, explore new books and recommended reads, and share their recommendations and critiques with a larger community.

Pam McMartin is a Senior English Teacher, English Department Head and Senior School Teacher Librarian in Tsawwassen BC, Canada. She is also addicted to Goodreads and spends decidedly too much time stalking people’s virtual bookshelves in search of her next great read. She is always looking to expand her Goodreads family, so feel free to add her as a friend. Besides on Goodreads, you can follow her thoughts on Twitter at @psmcmartin.

 

Creating Community One Story at a Time

My son started Grade 6 this year at a brand new school. This was a nerve-wracking shift for us as he had been attending his previous school since preschool. His fears were largely centered around finding new friends and fitting in, but as a teacher/parent my fears centered more around the learning environment and if his new teacher would conduct the class in a way that fostered inquiry and creativity.

After the first few weeks of school, it became clear that this teacher had a different style of teaching than the ones at my son’s previous school and  I fretted that he wasn’t learning enough and that he was going to be bored with this new style of instruction. In one of my particular moments of panic and after just finishing a lengthy text to rant to a teacher friend of mine about my fears in regards to the way my son was learning, my wise sage of a friend responded with a simple response – yeah, but how much do you really remember what you learned in Grade 6 content wise anyways? What you should really be asking yourself is what type of classroom community is being fostered.

Just that one simple question quelled the storm of concerns and made me reflect. What was my son’s new classroom community like? So, when he came home from school each day, I stopped listening for what he learned and focused more on the tidbits he shared with me about how he is learning. Once I started listening for the how, I realized the gift that his new teacher was sharing with him was the gift of story. I soon saw that my son who so often answered questions of “what did you do at school today?” with a shrug and an “I don’t remember” was now answering the question by sharing the stories he learned.  You see, his new teacher has created a classroom steeped in story and story is a powerful community builder. Every day he tells the students stories of his life, stories of the past, and stories of his hopes for the future. He also surrounds the students with stories with a huge classroom library that the students are free to access at any time. Most importantly, however, is the culture he has created by one simple habit- everyday he reads aloud to his Grade 6 class. I soon began to realize that my son was excited to tell me the stories that were being read to him and his classmates and recounted them with a verve and detail he has never had before when talking about school. Will my son remember the content of his Grade 6 Social Studies lessons? Maybe not, but he will remember the power of those stories being read aloud to him and what they made him feel.

In her blog and in her book Passionate Readers: The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, Pernille Ripp discusses the importance of reading aloud to our students and the importance of providing joyful reading experiences. When we read aloud to our students, we model our own enjoyment of reading, tap into the inherent human love of story, and provide a joyful reading experience for our students. Why then do we stop reading aloud to our students as they get older? This was the question that came to mind when I thought about my own teaching practice. Do I read aloud to my students? In reflection, I realized I do read the practice sample reading paragraphs to prepare for the Provincial Exams to my Honours English 11 class and I occasionally read out samples of strong essays, but this would hardly count as joyful reading. I quickly realized that I had fallen into the mindset of the senior English teacher – the one that does not see reading aloud to her senior English students as a valuable use of time.

For more detail on techniques to bring read alouds alive in your senior classes, please read Amy’s post on the topic.

Once this realization hit, I went straight to my senior English department colleagues and started to brainstorm ways that we can bring the joy of storytelling into our senior classes and these are the first steps we took.

Besides integrating daily reading time to each class, we also focused on how we can bring storytelling into their lives. Our school is a K-12 school and our senior students are fortunate enough to have many connections with the junior students. One program we have is a Kindergarten/Grade 12 buddy program where our Kindergarten students and our Grade 12 students meet once a month. Right away, I knew this was a perfect opportunity to allow my Grade 12 students to share stories. Prior to our next buddy meeting, I took the Grade 12 students down to the library and set them free in the picture book section with one simple task – find a story to read to your buddy. Off they went and magic quickly happened. As they were searching the shelves, stories started to present themselves to them. They found their favorite picture books they read as a child or ones that were tied to special reading memories. These were the books they choose to share with their buddies – the stories of their childhood. As they read the stories to their buddies the pride and the joy of sharing stories was evident.

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Before starting our living library, I read my Honours English 11 students the amazing picture book I Am A Story by Dan Yaccarino to get them in the story telling mood. We also made little campfires to tell the stories around to further create the atmosphere of sharing stories around a campfire. Some of my Grade 11 students were a little shy to tell their stories, so they enlisted the help of our school library puppet collection.

Another storytelling initiative I took on was having my Honours English 11 students create a living library for the Grade 3 and 5 students at our school. A living library is where students become living books with a story to tell. The Grade 3 and 5 students circulate around the library and “check out” an Honours 11 student and listen to the story the Grade 11 has prepared to tell. The purpose of the living library is not to ask questions or to engage in conversation with your audience, but simply to share your story. My Honours students have recently been studying how authors create voice in their writing and what better way to study voice than to create story using our own voices. When I first proposed the idea to my Honours students, I presented it as an exciting opportunity in storytelling and I was met with less than enthusiastic groans. They wanted to know if they really had to do this (the answer being yes, I want you to try) and “are we being marked on this” (the answer being no, but it will help you develop voice in your storytelling). Despite their reservations, they all actually showed up on the living library day and ended up having a blast. Upon reflecting on the experience afterwards, my students talked about how they had to change their stories to suit the different audiences that were listening to them. In some cases it was because they had an older or a younger audience, but in many cases it was because of the way the audience was reacting to the story. At the end of the experience, all of the Grade 11 Honours English students could agree on one thing – they loved telling their stories and they wished they could do this every class.

While running a living library every class is not really possible, this experience reminded me how I need to weave story into my daily classes more because story is a powerful tool. By reading aloud to my senior students, by giving them opportunites to read aloud, by sharing my stories, and by allowing them to share theirs I can help foster a class community that is steeped in the joy of story and storytelling.


Pam McMartin teaches Senior English, is the English Department Head, and the Senior School Teacher Librarian at a school in Tsawwassen, British Columbia Canada. When not trying to balance her many teaching roles, she loves sharing stories with her students, her son, her dogs, or anyone who will listen. She tweets at @psmcmartin.

 

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