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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Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

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Bull with a few of his favorite books

I’ve been thinking about one of my former students recently, wondering how he’s doing.  His name was Logan, but everyone–his family included–called him Bull.

I’ve been thinking about him because I had him in class for two years, and it took me a long time to realize I’d been recommending all the wrong books for him.

With the recent popularity of a book like Hillbilly Elegy (which has caused quite a stir here in Appalachia) I’m reflecting on how it’s a book I probably would’ve recommended to Bull.  Like the many other “country” books I’d offered him, figuring the text had a character he could actually relate to, I think Bull would’ve hated it, as many of my friends here in West Virginia have.  I haven’t had a chance to read it, but my peers and students alike who have say it’s too much of a stereotype of Appalachian culture, that it paints Appalachia much too negatively, and that it in no way captures the beauty of our mountains, music, or lifestyle.

I had a hard time getting Bull interested in reading, but boy, he’d write.  He wrote beautifully about the country he lived in, the simplicity of his family life (he showed me videos of teaching his barefooted three-year-old brother how to operate a push plow on their farm), and his love of hunting.

I think no book can capture the kind of love that a kid like Bull has for his own heritage, and I didn’t realize that when I offered him book after book that I thought had a “similar” kind of character for a protagonist.

But, in his reading life, Bull was a different kid last year.  He was a senior, about to enter the real world and acutely aware of his need to be prepared for it.

When I talked to him at the end of last school year, he described his junior year reading life as “shitty.”  I asked him why, and he said, “cuz I was lazy.”  He read two books all year, and when I talked to him about this, he laughed sheepishly.

Last year, he’d read 13 books and was in the midst of his 14th–Monuments Men by Robert Edsel–when I went on maternity leave.  I think he read 17 books by the end of the school year.  Before I left, I talked with Bull about his reading life.  We’d discovered his love of war books with American Sniper.  “My great grand-pap was in Vietnam, and I want to read about what he went through,” Bull explained, gesturing to his stack of books.

I also asked him how he felt about reading.  “It calms me,” he told me.  “It gives me something to do.”

It calms me.  I still remember him saying that to me, sitting in my classroom with the back door open, where a spring breeze wafted in and the sounds of kids eating lunch outside could’ve been a huge distraction.  But as Bull reflected on what reading did to him, the act of thinking about books took him away from our classroom and into a place of relaxation.

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

From war biographies, Bull moved to war fiction, then to books in verse, then to graphic novels, then to a variety of nonfiction titles.  He eschewed books about country life, popular fiction, and YA novels all year.

I’m thinking about Bull now as I reflect on the mirrors, windows, and doors we ask students to walk through in their reading lives.  I’m thinking about him as I reflect on Pernille Ripp’s plea for us to stop grading independent reading.  I’m thinking about how I approached Bull first with books I thought of as mirrors, but he was craving windows and doorways all along.  I’m thinking about how his whole junior year, he got 2/10s on reading logs, and I’m thinking about what a colossal mistake that was on my part.

So, last spring, I asked Bull to compile a list of his favorite books, and the draft has been sitting in my WordPress sidebar ever since.  I share it with you now to remind you that this list, a list for “any country boy,” in Bull’s words, is a list of books set far beyond the mountains of Appalachia–and represents a story that can never be told with an independent reading grade.

  1. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell – “This was an amazing book.  It was a true story of a Navy SEAL, and his whole team got attacked in an ambush and he was the only one that lived.  Just the things that he gives you is like standing in war–it’s just amazing how something can give you so much detail that it seems to be real.”
  2. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons – “It was the end of the world basically, and there are a few kids running away from the people who were going to kill them.  It was also a really detailed book so I could imagine what the new world looked like.  I liked that book a lot.”
  3. Perfect by Ellen Hopkins – “This book was all about everything people give up to be perfect.  The whole time I was reading it, I just thought, nobody’s perfect–what is wrong with these people?  But it made me understand everybody else better.”
  4. The Auschwitz Escape by Joel Rosenberg – “Hitler ruled this book.  It was about war from a prisoner’s point of view, and it gave lots of detail about what he went through and what Hitler forced him into.  I would never have wanted to be part of World War II as a soldier or a prisoner.  That was some crazy shit.”
  5. Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson – “This one was really hard to understand compared to the other WWII books I read.  I picked it for my challenge book, and it was about what happened in Russia during World War II.  It taught me more about writing than about war, honestly.”
  6. Watchmen by Alan Moore – “This was my first graphic novel and I liked that it was and was not about war, at the same time. It was kind of about the cold war, but through the fighters’ eyes and not the politicians or the history books.”
  7. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – “Well this book was nothing like the movie, but I wanted to read the book after I saw the movie.  It’s about a football player that came right out of the Bronx, basically had no mom, and he just went from clear down to about nothing to making millions of dollars a year playing in the NFL.  I got inspired by him how you can come from nothing to the NFL and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

Bull now works for the water company here in West Virginia, still lives on a farm…and still reads.  And the song of his reading life is so much broader than a hillbilly elegy.

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

Booktalk this now: THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER by Patricia McCormick

The story behind the story.  At this year’s ALAN workshop (you should go!!! free books!!!! lots of authors!!!!!!)  I heard Ryan Graudin, author of Wolf By Wolf, talk about her research of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

 

Dietrich who??!!!

 

Oh, you know, this guy who was part of a larger group planning to publicize Hitler’s misdeeds to the broader world and to kill him.

 

Ryan’s book is all about an underground resistance that planned to kill Hitler.  Her book is fantasy.  

 

The Plot to Kill Hitler, Patricia McCormick’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is as real as it gets.

plot-to-kill-hitler

Whom this book is for.  Readers who have a basic, elementary school-level understanding of Hitler and concentration camps know enough to follow this story from beginning to end: McCormick takes care of readers from there.

 

The topic is heavy, but the short chapters and brisk pacing make this 150-page piece perfect for middle and high school readers as well as mature elementary school readers.  If your school already does a holocaust unit, this book will provide a new point of view.

 

More sophisticated readers will make connections between Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King and can debate the relative merits of a pure nonviolent approach to more direct and retributive forms of protest.  One of the most fascinating parts of this book for me was seeing how Bonhoeffer, a deeply religious emotional young man, transformed from a social justice scholar and Gandhi acolyte to a subversive and aggressive warrior.

 

How to booktalk it. Not too much preamble.  Just read the 2-page prologue out loud to the class, where Bonhoeffer knows he is about to be captured by Nazis and races to hide his incriminating papers in a ceiling panel and leaves a deliberately fake diary to throw the Nazis off his path.

 

You should also know… I struggle to match quality middle grades nonfiction with readers.  Some of the most fantastic middle grades nonfiction titles require a lot of patience and background knowledge.  Some are so laden down with information that there isn’t enough of a story to keep readers going.  Other terrific nonfiction titles are awkwardly sized and aren’t easy to carry down the hallway.  This book avoids all of those possible pitfalls.

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  Despite her observations that nonfiction books tend to be harder to carry around than fiction books, she has seen students lug around the 10-pound “Hamilton” book — you know, the one with all the pictures of the original cast.    Since you were asking, she won lottery tickets to see “Hamilton” during its first week on Broadway.  Really.  Twitter handle: @HMX_MSE

Why I Returned to Hard-Copy Grading

tumblr_maccshmi241rvog5q.gifGrading, grading, grading.

Sigh.

As the kids say, I literally cannot even.

Where do I begin?

Grading, to me, is one of the necessary evils of education–along with mandatory monthly fire drills, whole-building staff meetings, and standardized tests.  I have disliked it for the duration of my teaching career, as I have disliked all of those things, but I still have not found a way to avoid it.

When I left the high school classroom last May, one of the things I was happiest to let go was grading.  (That and those damned fire drills.)

But I didn’t expect to come to loathe grading even more when I began teaching college students.

There were a few reasons I disliked grading in my new job:  first, I found that, by dint of the course designs I inherited, that the only “grades” given were at the very end of the semester.  This meant that what little formative feedback was built into the course wasn’t seen as valuable–by the students nor the other instructors I was working with.  I sat in meetings where a colleague complained about “having to do all that reading and write all those comments for nothing” (“nothing” being no grade).  I thought to myself, wow, you’re missing the whole point of formative feedback.

Another thing I loathed was that most everything was electronic.  Any assignment due was expected to be turned in via email/eCampus/Google Drive two days prior to the class meeting, and the instructor was to give feedback and a grade before class began on Friday.  This meant that the only feedback about a student’s work was always only given by the instructor, and that students never saw one another’s work.

So, as the semester moved along, I began to make some changes to the course design:  more formative feedback, more frequent turn-in checkpoints for large assignments, lots of ungraded, low-stakes drafting of ideas in class.  We all hobbled to the end, adjusting assignments and expectations as we went.

But over the winter break, as I reflected and gathered the many post-its of ideas I’d stuck here and there, seeking to refine our syllabus and clarify our goals, I thought of one major change I could make that would solve a lot of my problems with the course.

Return to paper.

img_7291Good, old-fashioned, print-it-out-and-bring-it-to-class-and-turn-it-in assignment submission.

This practice has had a few key benefits for me so far this semester.  First, I am seeing much more clarity of thought in my students’ talk in class–I suspect because they’re treating their weekly one-pagers as first drafts of their thinking, and then re-reading them, as evidenced by their frequent typo corrections or asides to me in the margins.

Second, the issue of opacity between students’ assignment submissions is gone.  Each class meeting, I try to build in a time to share our writing, whether by trading papers, using our papers as an artifact to support some talk, or asking students to comment on one another’s work.  I ask students to read not just for content, to glean multiple perspectives, but also to read for structure, to see how other writers think through the issues we’re grappling with.  As a result, I’ve seen a great deal of growth in how students structure their writing, as well as a transformation in the confidence of their writing voices as they engage with (and often question) the ideas in the texts we read.

Third, we’ve been reading Visible Learners this semester, which encourages the practice of documentation for the purpose of reflection.  By having concrete documentation of our thinking in the form of hard-copy papers, as well as hard-copy documentation of responsive thinking in the form of my comments or their peers’ in the margins, it is much easier to trace patterns and progress in our thinking.

Fourth, I’ve found that removing laptops or tablets from the equation when students share work actually improves the quality of their conversation.  I’ve been reading widely about how detrimental our devices can be to our talk, so I’ve made a conscious effort to reduce our screen time in class.  Fewer devices lead to more robust dialogue, which leads to better thinking and writing and time together overall.

Finally, my students are now accustomed to receiving frequent formative feedback and have come to expect and welcome it.  Initially, the students were a little wary when they saw my scribbles, assuming they were all corrections, but then were delighted when they actually read the feedback a peer or I had left.  Now, they hunger for the moments when a friend hands them back their paper with a handwritten note, or I return assignments the next class.

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Switching to hard-copy grading has improved a great deal of my work with my students, and although I still haven’t come to love grading, I am enjoying it a lot more this semester.

Now to tackle that huge stack of one-pagers that’s been staring at me all morning…!

Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader or join her for the Slice of Life Writing Challenge here.

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Monitor and Adjust: Begging for Engagement

Control

I’m not sure where the plans went.  I don’t even have a window.  They must have squeezed out through the rat-chewed hole in the ceiling.

Wherever they went, they no longer resided within my white-knuckled fists generally inclined toward control–control of listening, control of thinking, control of growth and progress.

It was a project I thought would stretch students to think about their futures and what it would take them to get there.  And it did!  It was practical, imaginative, rigorous, artistic.  It was what every high school senior wanted–or maybe it was just what I wanted.  The work was getting done–for the most part.  We were simply missing one thing: Electrifying energy, passion, a desire to find out more.  Many teachers call this “engagement.”

This project was just another task for my students.  So as I began to search for the cracks in my classroom responsible for swallowing up my PERFECT PROJECT, I turned to my lovely colleagues/friends for advice.

Lisa offered a lovely story about fraudy feelings in her own teaching career, and a story about a faltering relationship with a student that left her feeling less than a great teacher.

Shana shared the possibility that I might just ask my students, “WHAT WILL ENGAGE YOU?!  TELL ME!”  Begging and pleading might seem below an “authority figure” such as a teacher, but I disagree.

Amy seconded the fact that I might get the students involved in determining what they would like to do, but her second piece of advice was even more reassuring.  She explained, “If you go deeper into conferring–more frequently, with more probing questions–you might discover it is actually only a couple of  students in each class who are affecting the entire culture.”  She went on to discuss the “Savior Complex,” and how 100% engagement, 100% of the time is a very lofty goal.

All this advice, however, reminded me that engagement is a worthy (albeit, bloody and tearful) fight.

I wish I would have asked for help sooner, but I’m going to take a little bit of each piece of advice.

  1. We are going to finish this project and these presentations after we have a Spring Break palate cleanser.  I am finishing this out knowing, after conferring and returning to my notes, that it is only a few students affecting the culture.
  2. After presentations, we will take some time for feedback (or feedforward?).  I will beg and plead.  I will write in all caps, WHAT WILL ENGAGE YOU?! TELL ME!  However, I think we will also need to discuss, What even is engagement?  How is engagement different than compliance?
  3. Develop a plan by including the students, but holding them fast to high expectations.  Learning should stretch, it should challenge, it should change.  Sometimes that is painful.  I don’t want to get rid of the pain and the stretching, I just want them to be able to get behind the place into which they are stretching and growing.

My goal in this post was not to complain or lament, but instead to share that ALL teachers struggle with engagement.  ALL teachers deal with real humans, with real struggles, and real curious and wondering minds.  We want them to open the windows and the doors, but we have to teach them how, first.  Workshop is not a magic pill, but it is a magical formula that allows a lot of wiggle room to engage students if they’ll let you.

I want to get back to why I became a teacher, and remember to let go as much as humanly possible so that the students can grab onto the learning themselves.

What do you think?  When do you make changes and when do you stick to your plan?

Jessica Paxson is an English IV and Creative Writing teacher in Arlington, TX. She also attempts to grapple with life and all of its complexities and hilarities over at www.jessicajordana.com. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram @jessjordana.

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!).

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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. 

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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. 


 

Window, Mirrors, and Gigantic Doors: Inviting Sound into Uneasy Silences

For weeks I’ve worked on a list of books to use for book clubs in our junior English classes. I believe that students must have options that challenge, yet engage, and allow them to see themselves and/or others within the pages. It’s that whole windows and mirrors and doors analogy. Jillian Heise describes it well in this post. I’ll just quote a part that struck me:

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop originated the idea that many now reference. She talks about windows as “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.” And about mirrors, “…we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.” But she also talks about sliding glass doors which “readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.” The thing is, it’s the third part of it, the sliding glass door that seems to often be left out, but is perhaps the most important part – it’s the part that, in my interpretation, allows us to step into those other worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book – and isn’t that the power of reading? Being able to develop empathy, understanding, new perspectives by living in someone else’s shoes for a short time. Especially for books as powerful as the ones being written about these real issues that are affecting kids in their lives today, this mirror, window, sliding door access becomes even more important for them to see they have a place in our society, no matter what perspective they may bring.”

I’d like to offer an addition, not just sliding glass doors that  “allow us to step into those 8124672460_6b6f1ef826_zother worlds and become part of them for the time we are in that book,” although that interpretation is certainly vital to developing readers who love books and to gaining empathy.

What about other doors — like the kinds we have to push or pull to get through — the doors that make us work: cathedral doors, fortress doors, iron doors, or doors with scary knockers? These doors require effort. These doors may make us uncomfortable. And sometimes they require courage.

Some books can change us if we view them this way. They can change our students. And I’m not just talking about lexile levels, or complexity of ideas. I am talking about content. The content that exposes our flaws and weaknesses, the content that pushes our thinking, moves us out of our comfort zones, and makes us face, as Dr. Kim Parker puts it, “the lived experience of so many folks of color in this country.”

I am a white woman who teaches students of color. I grew up in a middle class family with conservative ideals. I go to church regularly, and I practice my religion. I had parents who were married for 55 years and taught me the value of hard work, education, and persistence. I am different from most of the students in my classroom. I enjoy a privilege in this country most of them have never experienced.

So what does this have to do with doors?

I choose the big ones.

Awhile ago I conducted a PD session with a group of teachers, mostly white women who like me teach mostly students of color. I showed some of the spoken word videos I use with my students:  “Spelling Father” by Marshall Davis-Jones and “Knock Knock” by Daniel Beatty. I shared articles about undocumented immigrants and Syrian refugees. I read an except from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi where a character’s wife is kidnapped and he desperately tries to find her, showing her picture around the streets, and finally being accosted by a policeman after he accidentally brushes into a white woman. The policeman rips up the man’s only picture of his 8-months-pregnant wife. The year:  pre-Civil War.

We viewed and read texts. We wrote quickwrites and analytical responses. We discussed author’s craft and studied the moves the writers make to create meaning. Everyone read. Everyone wrote. Everyone engaged in the learning.

Later, the conversation turned to engagement, and I asked the questions:  “What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives?”

I gave them time to talk, and I wandered the room, listening in to table discussions. I heard some valuable exchanges, but I also heard: “Oh, I don’t even go there. I’d lose control.”

Hmm.

How will we ever change as a society if we don’t ever go there? How will our students, no matter their color, ever learn to talk about tender and sizzling issues, ever learn to deal or challenge or change them, if their teachers never go there?

We cannot make excuses. We have to invite the hard topics into our classrooms. We have to provide books that are windows, mirrors, sliding doors, and gigantic wooden ones. Not only for the sake of the students we teach but for our profession.

How will we ever have more teachers of color if our students of color do not have better experiences in their English classes?

At NCTE last November, I met Dr. Kim Parker in person for the first time. She read her credo and she sealed a place in my heart with her sincere desire to do right by the students in her care. I share her credo here because it so closely echoes my own. I don’t think she’ll mind:

Ze’Voun tells me that he never knew that reading books could matter so much, could be so enjoyable. He is a young man who is Black, brilliant, and bored. He is a writer and a reader for whom schools seem to be increasingly less designed. When he disappears from my class without any explanation, I learn, a few weeks later, that he has been assigned to an out of school placement program, joining other boys who are–likely–as Black, brilliant, and bored as he.

I believe in rage, and I believe in action. I believe in a world where staying woke matters.  

My most essential work is making classrooms spaces where kids like Ze’Voun can read and write in ways that matter to them–from diss tracks; to letters to the local police department reminding them that Black Lives Matter, too, and that wearing their hoodies is not a crime; to Tweets to favorite authors thanking them for books that are just for him; to books that affirm, reflect, and extend his existence as a brilliant Black boy. Opening up spaces inside classrooms where they can speak a variety of Englishes as they explore the origins of Ebonics, where they can engage and delight with canonical and multicultural texts and write about their understandings, and where they are creators of texts that validate and stretch their identities is some of “the work my soul must have.”

Though Ze’Voun never returned, I continue to hold space in my classroom for other young people who have similar needs and desires, who are hungry for the diverse texts that reach them. I continue to hold on to a belief, and a dream, that the work I do must be as diverse as the students I teach. As escapist, as validating, as powerful as the texts they read. As whole, as free, as happy as we all wish, hope, and need to be.

This what I’ve dubbed Right Now Literacy. We have to give every student the commitment, resources, and opportunities they need to learn the reading and writing skills they need right now, to live and thrive in the world we are in right now.

Dear reader, I ask you the same questions I asked those teachers at that PD:  What are you doing to make the learning matter to your students? How are you discussing the issues that echo in their lives? 

Please answer in the comments. Let’s share our best practices and best resources for pushing ourselves and our students through the doors that can change us at the core. (And next week I’ll try to remember to share my new book club lists.)

FTC guideline

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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