Category Archives: Sinead Turner

Persisting in the Face of Criticism

I have a confession to make…my AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be–wait, let me rephrase that: my students’ AP scores were not what I was hoping they would be. That’s the temptation; to take on the blame when the test scores aren’t what you hoped. I notice that most of us don’t take credit when the students do well, though. Interesting…

At any rate, back to my confession. This was our 2nd year of AP Lang at my school. Last year, my students scored fairly well–pretty similar to the national average–and I was pleased. This year, they had more 4s than they had last year but there were also more 1s. The average score dropped by .1. That doesn’t sound like a big deal, does it? In this age of high stakes testing, though, it is. There is always pressure to do better and better, to demonstrate that you are effective and that you’re doing the “right” things. I’m largely removed from that pressure because I teach in a private school, but the pressure comes from other places in that situation. Instead of pressure coming from admin or a central board, there’s pressure (real or perceived) from parents. I can make all of the arguments–different set of kids, 2nd year of AP (supposedly it takes 5 to really know the AP material and get “good” at it), etc. The arguments don’t matter, though; I want to give my kids the best opportunities that they can get, so it’s reflection time.

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As I look forward to next year, I have to think about what worked and what didn’t, and already the pressure to drop my independent reading has begun, at least for my AP kids. Here are some of those questions and my responses to them:

  • How can you sacrifice 10 min of instructional time every day in an AP class?
    How can I not? My AP kids especially are so overloaded with classwork (plus athletics and extracurriculars–at my school, it tends to be the AP kids who do or join everything)–that they have precious little time at home to read. These kids see reading as a chore that has to be accomplished, something to mark off before they move on to the “real work” of AP Calc or AP Bio. They’re reading in a grind but not at all for pleasure. How can I not carve out a little time every day (from my 53 minute class periods) to help them reconnect with that love of reading just for the joy of reading?
  • What about more multiple choice practice? You could do that in the 10 minute reading time!
    I could, but I feel that building the reading lives of my students will pay off dividends, even on those multiple choice sections. After all, there’s a degree of that that’s based on reading comprehension, so I think reading is a pretty essential skill for them to work on. Sure, I probably do need to build in more m/c practice, but I’m not doing it at the expense of my independent reading time.
  • If you’re going to let them read, shouldn’t you make them read on-level AP-worthy books?
    First of all, what exactly is an AP-worthy book? On the AP Language exam, students are expected to make connections in their writing and to use evidence from their reading, among other things, to support their connections and observations. Nowhere in the instructions or scoring guidelines does it say that only “worthy” texts can be utilized. A student can make an insightful connection between a prompt on civil disobedience and Nic Stone’s Dear Martin or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy (one a YA novel, one a contemporary non-fiction) just as easily as he might refer to Henry David Thoreau. One more argue that the connection to the newer pieces could be even more effective because they may not be used as frequently as Thoreau’s essay. In addition, there is much research to suggest that adding choice to a reading program (check out Donalyn Miller’s post “I’ve got research. Yes I do. How about you?” for more on this) does more to promote an increase in reading skill and reading volume than anything else. My kids are Juniors, which means they’ll be going off to college in 2 years. These kids who have largely fake read to survive their work load (yes, even the honors and AP kids fake read) will be expected to read 200-500 pages a week when they’re in college, and too many of them are NOT ready. One of our 2018 graduates is taking a couple of classes of summer school before the full academic year starts, and she was shocked that the material on her sociology test came from the textbook chapters that she was assigned and not from the class notes that she studied meticulously. Yep. Welcome to college.
  • Well, don’t you at least have to test them or monitor them? How do you KNOW they are reading?
    This one gets me because it’s such evidence of the educational climate right now. I KNOW that they are reading because I’m talking to them. I talk to them every day about what they’re reading and the connections they’re making and about what they’re going to read next. They stop me in the hall to tell me that they’re mad at this character or that I’ve got to read this new book they just discovered. I have them write about their reading, using whatever they’re reading as support for their points. And I see the growth in their reading–it’s a pretty powerful thing to watch a student who states that she’s never done more than skim or fake read a book since elementary school dive into a new series and then, when she’s done, ask me for a suggestion because she feels like she wants to challenge herself and read something with more bite.

So while I am thinking about what tweaks and changes I’ll make for next year, I know for certain that independent and choice reading will continue to be an important part of my classroom plan.

What about you? What challenges do you face in your reading program? How would you answer these questions? If you’re looking for more support for your reading choices, check out these posts by Amber Counts here and here. And these by Amy Rasmussen here and here.

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Creating a Culture: the workshop journey begins

“Mrs. Turner, I’m mad at you…”

This was the voice that greeted me the other morning before the first bell to begin school had even rung. I was surprised. Garrett is one of our seniors–a kid who I had taught for two years and who often called me Mom (and sometimes Dad, just to be funny). We are close, and I didn’t know why he’d be mad.

“I finished that book and now I don’t have anything to read and I can’t stop thinking about what happened in Winger and I’m mad at you.”

Ah…now I get it. You see, this young man was an avowed non-reader three years ago. He was almost proud of it–he wore it like a badge. Garrett was not alone. My classroom seemed to be filled with young men and young women who had lots of “better” things to do than to pick up a book. Many (almost proudly) said that they hadn’t read a book since they stopped AR testing in elementary school. Frustrated with lower reading scores than I thought appropriate and encouraged by industry greats like Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle, I was determined to change my kids into readers, one kid at a time.

I set out to fill my classroom with books. I bought used books, I bought books from Goodwill, I took donations from friends and family members–there were books everywhere!

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Then I took a bigger leap and decided to give up 12 minutes of my instructional time every day. We’re in 53 min classes 4 days a week with 39 minute classes on Fridays–251 min of instructional time; 12 minutes a day 5 days a week is roughly 20% of my instructional time. I believed the literature, though, and, more than that, I believed in the power of books. I’ve been a lifelong avid reader, and as the kid who took a book everywhere (and always had a spare book in the car), I’ve always used books as an escape but also as a way to help me work through whatever issue I was facing.

So back to my grand experiment. Through trial and error, lots of book talks, and lots of reading conferences, we started to see a change. All of a sudden (though actually after quite a lot of intentional hard work), I had 90% of my students reading and excited about it. There were several days a week when even my toughest audience would request more time to read. Garrett, for example, tore through Gym Candy by Carl Deucker, then Runner, then Payback Time, then Swagger. Swagger had the biggest impact, I think. Now it wasn’t just about the sports narrative–he was getting to something with meat and weight. He was also getting a little obsessed with Carl Deucker. After some encouragement and more than a little coercion, he tried Kevin Waltman’s High School Hoops series–Next, Pull, Slump, and Quick. It was somewhere in the middle of Slump when he admitted that maybe he didn’t just like to read Carl Deucker books–maybe he actually liked to read. (For ideas about using great sports writing as a hook for your students, click over to Shana’s mini-lesson.)

Now Garrett’s a senior, and he’s in my room about once every two weeks looking for something new to read. He’s not alone, either. It seems that there’s a constant stream of kids in and out of my room looking for a new book. I get comments in the hall about something new that someone is reading, or a former student stops me at lunch to recommend the book that he just finished. Another student might stop by in tutorials to ask if I’ve read anything about a particular topic that she’s struggling with. I’m not alone, either. My other colleagues in the English department are experimenting with different ways to institute independent reading time in their classes. It doesn’t look the same in any of our classes, but the bottom line is that our kids are getting time to read, and in that time, they’re getting time to think. It’s moving into other departments as well–one of the History teachers is toying with the idea of incorporating some reading time into his class as well. The funny thing is that we’re starting to see results on test scores, too. The Reading component average for ACT scores at my school is slowly moving up–progress! We are creating a community of readers at my school, and, in the process, creating a community of thinkers.

If you are looking for some books that are sure to jump-start even the most reluctant reader, check out this post from Jackie! Charles Moore also has a great list of books and an inspiring story of his own journey here.


Do you have a story of a reading workshop success? I’d love to hear it! I’m also always looking for books that grab your most reluctant readers so that I can be ready with ammunition!

Sinead Turner has been trying to find a balance between reading ALL of the books and reading/grading essays–reading is just more fun! She teaches English 11 and AP English Language & Composition in Alabama at a small Catholic school and has three beautiful girls, a saint of a husband, and a menagerie of animals. She’s also sticking her toe into the proverbial Twitter water at @SineadWTurner.

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