Tag Archives: choice reading

Assigned Reading often Fails where Choice Reading Soars

Sometimes things just hit me wrong. A joke that’s more cutting than cute. A meeting where complaining is the conversation. A book that gets ruined in the rain. A comment on social media that shows we are ignorant or arrogant or just right out rude.

I get asked often about whole class novels. If you’ve read this blog awhile, you know I am not a fan, not a fan in the traditional teacher-makes-all-the-choices-and-all-students-read-the-same-book-at-the-same-speed kind of fan. I do think there’s a place for a shared novel experience. I also think there’s a place for a lot more conversation about the pros and cons of it.

If you read the posts in the NCTE Connected Community Teaching and Learning Forum, perhaps you saw this one Whole Class Novel Studies, which began with this request for help:

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This teacher shares a legitimate concern. I would imagine that most of us who reflect upon our practice and want to do what’s best for students have at some point shared this struggle.

Those of us who read Penny Kittle’s Book Love (or perhaps we came to similar conclusions on our own) understand that every room of readers means many readers reading at a variety of reading rates. And we know it’s not just because students aren’t interested, are too busy, seem apathetic. It just makes sense:  students will be at “different places in their books” because students are all different.

We keep trying to make them all the same.

In response to this teacher’s query, four very helpful teachers shared what works for them. There are some good ideas here. Then, this response, which made my head nod:

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Followed by this one, which…well, you’ll see:

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Did a professional just dis another professional? Did a curriculum designer and educator on a public ELA forum just dis Dick Allington, one of the lead researchers on reading acquisition and best practices in literacy instruction?

This is just wrong. Wrong on many levels.

Now, I know that Mr. Allington was being sly in his comment here. He wanted to furrow some foreheads and force some frowns. I’m sure. And it worked to instigate some important discussion, which many of us would like to see more often.

One person commented from the perspective of a parent:

“When my son received the summer reading list to prepare for his first year in high school, Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club topped the list. Being the rule follower I am, I forced that copious and joyful reader to trudge through that text. He didn’t read a thing in English class for the next four years. A brilliant reader and thinker, totally disenfranchised. As Allington said, he didn’t read the text.

“…the abusive pedagogy of the whole class novel described here is oppressive and culturally irresponsible. Sure, there are strategies that teachers can employ that mediate the boredom and disengagement. There are methods that utilize a whole class novel as a shared or mentor text and as a model for instruction or springboard for discourse. And there are a few teachers that can engage the readers throughout a methodical plodding through a classic text. But the question remains: what exactly is taught with the whole class novel? Are you teaching the novel itself? The habits of mind to diffuse any text? Or the student? When do they do their own thinking, independent practice, with influential and engaging texts?”

Shona, you won my heart. My four sons were very similar to yours. All avid readers but not when it came to reading for school.

Yetta wrote this comment:

“Richard Allington is raising a very important curricular issue.  Why should readers only read books chosen by other folks? Self selection of books is a concept that needs to be part of every class concerned with reading development including fiction and non fiction.

Book clubs, reading discussion groups, etc. are organized by many teachers to involve and support students with self selection of reading materials.”

Followed by Yvonne:  “Self-selection works. I was/am always surprised by what students choose to read. Students  amaze me.”

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Leslie and Yoly with their favorite reads of the fall

Me, too. And students will read more when they have choice. When we couple volume with instructional practices that teach students what readers do when they get stumped or confused or even bored, using mini-lessons and shorter whole class texts, we help students learn how to navigate and improve their own reading lives.

Shona continues, quoting from the work of Louise Rosenblatt, a researcher who has shaped much of my work:

“A history of the teaching of English (Applebee, 1974, 1996) reports in all periods dissatisfaction at the lack of success in achieving the humanistic goals of literature teaching that school profess and the failure to understand that the traditional approach conflicts with these aims. Literature is treated as primarily a body of knowledge about literary works rather than as a series of experiences. To produce readers capable of critically evoking literary works for themselves and deriving the pleasures and insights claimed for literary study evidently requires different methods and a different educational climate from the from the traditional teacher-dominated explication of literary texts” (p. 71).”

Think about this for a second:  What does Rosenblatt mean by a “series of experiences”? Ones the teacher carefully crafts through engaging and interesting novel studies, or experiences each student knows how to create for him or herself

Reading in English classes cannot be about the books. Reading in English classes must be about the readers. 

I know what some may say. I’ve heard it a lot:  “But I loved English is high school. I read every book. I wrote every paper on every book. I enjoyed the discussion around those books. That’s why I wanted to become a teacher.”

Yes, I know. Me, too. And you know what (and this is embarrassing to admit):  It wasn’t until I was a teacher myself, dragging sophomores through To Kill A Mockingbird in 1st through 3rd period and juniors through The Scarlet Letter in 6th and 7th when I had this epiphany:  “There are some students who are so different than I was when I was in school. They don’t read. They don’t do their homework.”

How naive. How sad that I was so unprepared for the readers I would face in my classroom.

In Lisa’s post last week, among other things, these few sentences rang true for me, too: “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.”

Assigning reading

Providing study guides

Giving content quizzes

For the first three years of my career, this is how I taught, too. I thought I was supposed to teach great literature — and then test on it — instead of helping students become readers who engage with great literature.

I believe we can do both. I believe when we keep the student — his abilities and needs, her interests and desires — as the pilot of our pedagogy, we can do both.

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My quiet table — readers all.

I know you can click on that link at the top of this post and read the thread on the NCTE forum about whole class novels. I hope you do. In case you don’t, I’ll quote a bit of what Dr. Paul Thomas wrote:

“Teaching ELA/English involves a unique (compared to other disciplines, although somewhat shares by math) tension between our obligations to teaching disciplinary content (knowledge such as Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby as a part of American literature) and also literacy skills . . .

“And thus many high school teachers become trapped in teaching, for example, The Scarlet Letter to make students experts on that specific novel and/or the work of Hawthorne, all as part of gaining so-called cultural knowledge of American literature.

“In that pursuit, often the process negatively impacts students’ eagerness, joy in reading and writing because, as Yetta and others have noted, assigned reading often fails where choice reading soars.

I appreciate Dr. Thomas delineating disciplinary content and literacy skills in such a way. Perhaps this distinction is at the core of the tension between what often seems like two sides of our field: #teamstudentchoice and #teamteachercontrol.

Dr. Thomas goes on to caution against “demonizing” those who choose one approach over the other, and this is where, I’ll be honest, I might be a bit like Screwtape, except in a good way.

My writers and I hold fast to our tag line:  Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop. We write this blog to encourage others to take a chance on choice, to share student reflections and accomplishments, to promote current books and diverse authors, to show how choice works, and research matters. And sometimes it’s hard to not speak up and speak out a whole lot more.

This semester I have this amazing student teacher. (Anyone in north TX hiring?) He’s brilliant, proactive, a natural. He “gets” our students, and they love him. Throughout the fall semester, Joseph observed my classroom. After “hello” the first thing Joseph said to me was “I have never been in an English class like this. I was so bored with English is high school.” Joseph has stepped right into a workshop pedagogy and embraced its benefits, as a student and as a teacher.

But I share Joseph with a teacher down the hall. He joins her each afternoon and mostly watches as she assigns reading, provides study guides, and gives content quizzes. Heavy boots walk back to my classroom every single day.

And this makes crazy.

We can do so much more. We owe our students so much more.

 

Maybe we can help each other out:  How do you have critical conversations about choice and workshop and the wonders of books with your colleagues? Please share in the comments.

 

For more from Dr. Thomas see his post “We Teach English” Revisited. For more on the research around student learning and choice, see Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, LaBrant, and this post on Donalyn Miller’s blog.

 

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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How Conferring and a Book Solved the Tissue Issue, and Hopefully, Much More #FridayReads

You know the boys who cannot sit still? I’ve got a gaggle of them in my second period. Now, I’m not talking about elementary school kids, nor middle school. I’m talking about the juniors I teach in high school.

No sooner do I blink, and at least one of them is up walking to the tissue box. He’ll slowly take a tissue. Saunter on back to his seat (for about three minutes — I’ve timed it) and then waltz on over to the trash can to throw the tissue away and then mosey on back to his seat.

With eight of these guys, it’s constant motion. And I need Dramamine.

One class period. Five days. Two boxes of tissues. Gone.

At the end of that first very long week, I realized the reality. All kinds of memories flooded back from Tom Newkirk’s class “Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture”at UNH Lit Institute the summer of 2015.  (If you haven’t read Tom’s book Misreading Masculinity:  Boys, Literacy, and Popular Culture, it’s insightful.)

My tissue-loving boys were posturing all over the place, and somehow I needed to stop the Tissue Issue.

It’s been easier than I thought. Really, it’s all about getting them into books they want to read.

On the first day of school, I’d prepped my room with stacks of colorful engaging books on every table. We did a book pass and wrote down titles we thought we’d like to read. I showed my passion for books and reading, and my students rolled their eyes at my request they read for three hours a week.

“No way,” I heard one young man mutter, “I ain’t reading.”

This attitude doesn’t deter me.

Even if they were faking it, after just a few days and lots of one-on-one mini-conferences, every kid in a class of 30 at least looked like they were reading. Except two.

I invited these two separately into the hall for private chats about their social PATT (party all the time) moves in the classroom.

“You know, they all follow your lead, right? I need you working with me to make this class work.”

Both agreed, and I asked them to shake my hand on it.

But old habits die hard.

Then, today — 13 days into the school year — gold.

Book gold.

“Hey, Mrs. Ras, can I talk to you in the hall?

“Do you think you could help me find a different book to read — one with music. You already know I like music.” I remembered his free verse rap at the end of class last Friday.

“So give me some ideas –”

“Well, something like that book JaBo’s reading…the long way one.”

A Long Way Gone?” (I’m trying to remember if there’s any music in this memoir about a child soldier.)

Both of my copies were checked out. I had to think fast. Crash Boom Love, a novel in verse by Juan Felipe Herrera, National Poet Laureate, flashed in the corner of my eye. (Thank you, poetry shelf just inside the door.)

We flipped through the pages, and I explained that it’s a book written in verse — all poems that make a complete story.

“You mean like one long poem?”

“Yep. Do you want to trade me this book for that one?” I said nodding at My Friend Dahmer, the graphic novel in his hand he’d been fake reading for 12 days. (I know he chose it for the pictures. “It’s weird” is all he could tell me in our first conference.)

Not six seconds after we’d entered the room, I saw Kameron flipping through the pages and showing his new book to JaBo.

That’s when you know you’ve got them — or at least got a chance at getting them to read — when they do a book talk to their friend before they’ve even read a page.

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Meet Kameron. He may be a famous rapper one day.

I love this work with adolescent readers. I know we can change lives as we help young people grow in literacy skills, as we help them recognize themselves in books, and help them see others so different from themselves in the books they read.

It might be the only hope we have as a nation. Empathy, compassion, tolerance, justice, mercy, and love all wait for discovery like healing treasure and hope in the pages of the books we share with our students.

And when that book gold finally glistens — well, that’s when I have to cross the room for a tissue.

 

 

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Finding Solace in our Students

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End of the year pics with friends and books.

The shooting in Orlando this weekend has weighed heavily on my mind for the past few days; it has settled into the back of my brain, penetrating my thoughts whenever I get a moment to rest between the hectic last days of school.  While I only know victims through six degrees of separation, I can’t help but see the images of friends, family, and students in the 49 faces of those murdered.

I’m not sure if it is the lockdown drills at school that make these tragedies feel all the more chilling and real, or if it’s the targeting of LGBTQ+ populations when I, oftentimes for the first time, watch young people finding their true identities in my classroom, but this time I feel nauseous and weak and powerless.

To think that this is the world my students are graduating into and growing up in, is frightening.

But as I scrolled through the profiles of the deceased, I found a statement from the father of victim Mercedez Flores.  He wrote, “We must all come together, we must all be at peace, we must all love each other, because this hatred cannot continue for the rest of our lives.”  That is what the workshop classroom allows me to share with my students—a corner of this peace and love.  It opens a door for me to connect with them on a personal level, allowing them to find not only acceptance but also stories, understanding, and success in their books.  Allowing them to open up to new literature and explore themselves as a reader sends the message that I not only value them as learners, but I value them as diverse people with a wide variety of needs, curiosities, and interests.  This avenue may only be minor, but in the wake of all the hatred and fear, I hope my classroom is a respite from the world.  A place where students can learn to at least respect one another’s differences without judgment or condescension, a place where we can explore the difficult themes and navigate challenging conversations in safety.

IMG_2693Everyday gives me a little more hope that this next generation has begun thinking about the innumerable struggles they will have to face.  As one of my students wrote about the universality of To Kill A Mockingbird, “For an innocent man to be found guilty is a miscarriage of justice, but for an innocent man to be found guilty for being black is a result of bigotry and prejudice, and shouldn’t happen…Sadly, as seen with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and others, racism still does exist in this country. To Kill A Mockingbird is a constant reminder of how far we have come and how far left we still have to go when it comes to overcoming racism.”  Charlie’s words remind us that stories show us both the fallibility and overwhelming strength of the human condition.

Yesterday morning, as I prepared for my last day of classes (we still have three more days of exams), I reminded myself that teaching allows me to model a life of acceptance and love, of caring and compassion, of concern and advocacy.  It may not be much in the general scheme of things, but it is the most productive way I can handle the tragedies our country continues to face.  Between cramming in grading and pulling together final assessments, I spent invaluable time writing notes to my classes, collecting ice cream toppings for our last day parties and signing the backs of photos of my students with the books they read this year.

The best part is that the love is returned as graduating seniors from years prior show

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Ice cream parties to finish up our yearlong adventure together.

up at my door to hug me good bye and have me sign their yearbooks.  College students visit to update me on their lives, current students voluntarily help me pack up my room, and former students spend their first summer afternoon organizing my bookshelves for future students.  For all the hate that exists in this world, there is far more kindness, far more compassion, and far more love.  I know because my students remind me of this every day.

 

#3TTWorkshop — Teaching Students How to Thrive in Workshop

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We received the following request from our UNH-loving friend and inspiring educator Betsy Dye who teaches in Illinois. She got us thinking.

Betsy’s email:

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?  What are some of the effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

While of course I’ve had students who have taken to and embraced the idea of workshop immediately,  I’ve had others who often fall into one or more of the following categories:

–students who have become so apathetic to what they’re doing because of no choice that they now prefer to be told exactly what to do which doesn’t require a lot of effort on their part
or
ninth graders who used to be enthusiastic readers and writers until middle school when whole class novels replaced independent reading and when whole class prompts were assigned for all writing and who’ve consequently lost their passion for reading  and writing
or
students who have been told they will have choices … but then have been pigeonholed when an actual assignment was given (‘you can write about anything you want as long as it happened in the 1700s in England’; you can read anything  you want as long as it’s a fictional historical novel’); these students don’t really trust me when I say I’m all about choice
or
seniors who have spent three years stuck in the whole class read/whole class discuss/whole class write essays cycle, and who have read only about 4 to 6 novels a year

I’ve also had a few colleagues ask how to get started and while I’ve been able to provide a few suggestions, I’d sure love some other input.

Amy:  First of all, I think asking ourselves how we get students, no matter their predisposition, to engage in a workshop-inspired classroom is something we should revisit often. Every year and every new group of students deserves our focus and best efforts so they have the best year of learning possible.

I have to remind myself that just because one group of kids understood and engaged well one year does not mean the incoming group of kids will the next. This year is a perfect example. I’ve wracked my brain, but I must have missed a core piece of the buy-in pie at the beginning of the year because many of the things that have worked in prior years have produced constant push back in this one. I’ve already got two pages of notes with what I want to do differently, or better, next year.

What advice do you have for a teacher about introducing workshop to classes who are unfamiliar with it?

Shana:  My strongest piece of advice is to make sure students know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it during each lesson segment in a workshop structure.  At the beginning of last school year, I had a student named Robert who was constantly angry with me for what he saw as workshop “catching him off guard.”  He didn’t know how to predict what we might do next after ten years of whole-class novel sameness.  He felt afraid that choice amounted to a trick, and that he wouldn’t be able to be as successful as he’d been in previous English classes.  

Robert reminded me that for many of our students, the workshop is wildly unfamiliar, and that for many teens, change is scary.  I had to be deliberate in my language, in our routines, and in my classroom organization in order to constantly reinforce for students what we were doing and why we were doing it.  I made sure to always have an agenda on the board, including a “what’s next” segment that showed how the day’s lesson related to the next class, and also made sure to review and preview during each day’s mini-lesson.  I found that once I reiterated to students that a day’s lesson was going to be used in a specific way, they began to make the connections between lessons that I only saw in my lesson design.

Lisa: Our district has been utilizing workshop for several years in the K-8 realm, but high school workshop is relatively new to our department, and completely new as the prefered delivery method. That said, I think the most important element to stress with teachers is that the enthusiasm they project has a huge impact on student willingness to buy in. This is true with or without choice, but when I am suggesting to my students that they be readers and writers, I need to model, live it, breath it, and love it.

Amy:  One of my first exposures to workshop instruction came from Marsha Cawthon who teaches in Plano, TX. She invited me to visit her classroom. Wow. The walls were painted deep inviting colors, and she’d moved out the ‘school-looking’ furniture and brought in home furnishings. The room welcomed something different. At that time, Marsha told me that when the room is different than what they are accustomed to — desks in rows and stereotypical school posters, etc — students know that the class and the instruction will be different. I started painting my walls, grouping my desks into tables, throwing a rug on the floor, and bringing in cast off furniture and book shelves.

Lisa:  Amy speaks about the impact the physical classroom has on this process. I think that makes a huge difference, too. Our enthusiasm shows in our classroom design. We as teachers know that we are selling a product. That means if we convey our enthusiasm through the way our rooms look, the level of excitement we project about a text through a book talk, and/or our sincere line of inquiry during conferences, students know if we really practice what we preach and use what we are selling. Let your enthusiasm for literature and writing, and in this case they are broad terms because they afford so many options, set the foundation for the year. Ask students a lot of questions, invest in their answers, and moving forward with confidence in what you have to offer them can, and in many cases will, empower them and change them for the better.  

What are some effective ways to explain to students what they’ll be doing if they’ve never experienced a workshop classroom before?

Amy:  Of course, I tell students on day one that the teaching I do and by extension the learning they will do will be different in my classroom. I know they don’t believe me. I teach 11th grade. Talk about kids that are set in their ways. Some checked out of school a long while ago, and they are just going through the motions. Most hope to go to college though — that’s a plus for the AVID program in which all of my students are a part of. I have taught 9th, and 10th grade before though — often the students at these younger grades are even harder to convince that workshop instruction differs from a traditional approach where the teacher makes all the choices in reading and writing. Sometimes kids do not want to make choices. It’s sad, but they are way too jaded already. I know everyone who’s taught for even a little while already knows this. So what can we do?

Rituals and routines. I think that’s at least part of the answer. We set up rituals and routines that we stick through like super glue, and we do not waver or change plans if at all possible. We practice, practice, practice until the routines become the norm. We help students recognize the moments that work and work well. For example, my students read at the beginning of every class period. The routine is set:  walk in the door, get out your books, begin reading. When I am on my game at the beginning of the year, and I welcome students at the door and remind them to sit down and begin reading, I have a much easier time than the daily reminder I end up resorting to. We save valuable reading and instructional time when we get right into our books. Then, when students read, I confer. This routine is the spokes in the wheel that keep my workshop instruction thriving. The more I consistently confer, the more students read and write in abundance and at high levels.

Lisa: I will echo what Amy says with wild abandon. Routine. Use the precious minutes for, as Penny Kittle says, what matters. Again, with our students entering high school with a workshop background, I think the biggest challenge for our official move to workshop next year will be for teachers to learn/grow through experimentation and for students to see what the accelerated expectations are at the high school level. Though, I think for all students, whether they have workshop experience or not, the routine provides a normalcy that quickly unifies the classroom. When students know what to expect every day (time to read, book talk, mini lesson, etc.), expectations have already been set. Then those routines can be built on to encourage consistent reading, deep analysis, focused revision of work, collaboration, and ultimately, the community of readers and writers forms.

Shana:  Again, we are in accord.  Routines and rituals are essential to the workshop.  Once those student-centered practices are made normative, and students know that their risk-taking within a workshop community will not result in punitive actions like bad grades, it is then that we can encourage the freedom and autonomy essential to advancement in a workshop classroom.  In addition to all this, I’ll say that after a few years teaching at my high school, my class established a reputation, and students entered the room trusting my practice rather than questioning it.  Students talk to one another about workshop classes, and those who’ve heard about the concept come in willing to try it out because they know the gist of what it’s all about.

How do you help inspire learning and engage those students who seem to prefer to be told exactly what to do?

Amy:  Everyone on the planet loves to have choices. This includes students who seem to be so apathetic they wait until we make the choice for them. Of course, Don Murray said something like this “Choice without parameters is no choice at all.” Sometimes too much choice looms too large for students. Lighten the load. Lower the stakes. Instead of saying “Read anything you want,” say things like “Why don’t you try a book from these interesting titles?” (and set down a stack of five or six) or “Let’s talk some more one-on- one. I bet I can make a reader of you yet.” This puts the challenge on you instead of on the student. Interesting how many non-responders will respond. Sometimes it takes awhile, but we can almost always win the challenge of engagement.

Shana:  I agree–all choice is no choice.  That’s why I like to consistently model what choice in literacy looks like.  When students see my example–I know the kinds of books I like, and I choose from within those genres, or I know the kinds of writing topics I’m interested in and write within those topic frames–they begin to understand what choice might look like for them.  Lisa’s colleague Catherine wrote about intentional modeling here, and I think that’s an essential part of the workshop.  When students see my passion for creating my own path of literacy advancement, they begin to see what theirs might look like, too.  Oh–and never relenting when kids ask for the easy path helps, too.  🙂

Lisa: What comes to mind immediately is how ironic that teenagers would ever want to be told what to do! In so many areas of their lives, like all human beings, we desire to forge our own path if we are truly given the resources and support to do so. Students often want to be told what to do when they are too afraid to take a risk or too trained to let other people think for them. Shana’s point about being a model is my strategy here too. Never be afraid to be geeky about your love of reading and writing.

Where I think I may have gone a bit wrong in the past is that I would try to translate my love of reading and writing through the texts that only I chose. This will hook some students, but without the ability to take a passion for reading and apply it to what they want to read, I was only ever hitting a few kids with each text. It’s like mushrooms. My husband, sweet as he is, has been trying to get me to like mushrooms for over a decade. Now, I do enjoy food, and I will gladly eat all day long, but I am never going to like mushrooms. In fact, when they appear, I am basically done eating (and yes, mushrooms just appearing is a real, hard hitting issue). Mushroom rants aside, we can’t take what we like and expect kids to invest.

We need to show them that we read and write, that reading and writing connects us to what it means to be humans (all humans), and we can all grow from it. Sometimes it takes a long, long, long time, but with the wide expanse of choice, we have a much better chance of reaching each and every student. And…bribe them. 😉

How do we reinvigorate a student’s passion for reading and writing?

Amy: I hesitate to lay all the blame on middle school, but I do think something happens during these years that can often dampen a love of reading and writing in our students. I remember reading a text by Alfie Kohn wherein he said something like “Just when students are old enough to start making wise choices, we take the choices away from them.” I know some would argue that sixth graders are not very wise, but I’d argue right back. Sure, they are. They are wise to the things they like to read and the topics they like to explore in their writing.

My twin sons had a workshop teacher in middle school — the only two of my seven children who did — I think it was seventh grade. Both Zach and Chase learned to like reading, something that did not happen in middle school. They also learned to write. They chose topics like football and winning the state championship like their older brother. They wrote hero stories about saving their friends as they imagined themselves as soldiers surrounded by gunfire. My boys are now close to 22. Chase has spent his first full week at Basic Training with the Army, and Zach plans on joining the Navy when he returns in a year from his mission in Taiwan. They are both masterful writers and eclectic readers. I owe a lot of thanks to that middle school teacher.

Lisa: Show them you care about what they care about, and you care enough to push them to care about a wider and wider world.  That means meaningful conversations (conferring), opportunities to explore student interests (choice writing/reading), passionately sharing your own ideas and insights (book talks, selection of mentor texts), and subscribing to the motto that variety is the spice of life.

I’ve read a lot in the past few months that I would have thought was out of my comfort zone. For example, I read my first graphic novel, Persepolis. Ahhh-mazing. I’ll be honest. I was judgey about graphic novels before, but now, I am hooked! Once hooked, I book talked the text and shared with students the story of how wrong I was about graphic novels. We talked then about books, genres, and experiences with reading that surprise us. I think it’s good for students to be nudged (shoved) out of their own comfort zones sometimes. At the same time, they aren’t going to jump back in the game without those experiences that come from a place of pure passion and joy. So…we must really get to know our kids, make suggestions that speak to them as best we are able, and then give them time. Time is precious to all of us, but to teenagers, it would seem, they have little to no time to read. We must make time for them in class (give them a taste) and then work with them to make the time (even ten minutes at a time) to keep coming back for more.

Shana:  Confer, confer, confer.  When we talk to kids and find out what they are passionate about, we can help them see the connections between their passions and literacy.  Further, we can introduce them to important links between success in their interests and how reading and writing can put that success within reach–my vocation-driven West Virginia students aren’t interested in the literacy skills that college might require, but they do care about being able to read or write a technical manual.

We can also help students discover new passions through reading–after reading Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air in tenth grade, I fell in love with Mt. Everest, and I still read anything I can get my hands on about it.

We’ll continue with part two of this discussion tomorrow. In the meantime, please add your comments. How would you answer Betsy’s questions? What did we leave out?

#FridayReads — A Book about Death to Teach Writing?

Last Saturday my niece and I attended the North TX Teen Book Festival.

Hundreds of teens stormed the book sales and stood in lines to get signatures from their favorite authors. Authors shared stories about their craft and their books while grouped in panels with interesting names like “‘Just a Small Town Girl’ Small towns — Big Stories,” and “‘The Book Boyfriend’ Sometimes Boys in Books are Better,” and “‘We’re Young and We’re Reckless, We’ll Take This Way Too Far’ Exploring mature situations in YA.

Raistlyn took notes. She is 14, a prolific poet, and is writing a novel.

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New books added to by to read next list.

For our last event of the day, we crowded in an overflowing room to listen to Holly Black, James Dashner, Sarah Dessen, Gayle Forman, Ruta Sepetys, Margaret Stohl talk about what it is like when books become movies. We oohed and aahed and laughed as they told of their experiences. (Margaret Stohl is funny!)

School busses lined the streets, and I cheered that so many teachers thought to bring their students. I did not. We were out of school the day before, and thanks to my poor planning, I never got around to getting a field trip approved.

I kicked myself after.

But I got a lot of great book recommendations, and my TBR tower is now named Eiffel.

I only bought one book. (Don’t tell. My husband and I have a bet to see who can resist 18883231buying books the longest.) I bought Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin because I heard the author talk with such excited wonder about this story and his experience writing it.

It’s the story of a boy who knows the date of his death. He knows because that’s the way it goes in his world — everyone knows the day they will die. Morbid, you say? Maybe.

But this is a comedy.

Hooked me. I need more books with laughs in my classroom library, and so far, this one does not disappoint. Here’s the excerpt I will share when I book talk this book:

Excerpt from Denton Little’s Deathdate by Lance Rubin p 66-67

I know different people and cultures have varying approaches to death, so in case you don’t know about the tradition of the Sitting, here’s the deal:  whilst waiting for death, you sit. You generally end up in a room of your house, probably the family room (ideally not the living room because the irony of that is too hilarious and stupid), where you’re joined by your immediate family and whoever else has been invited:  cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, girlfriends, best friends, and so on. Everybody communes and celebrates and waits for something to happen.

And something always happens.

Heart attack, stray bullet, seizure, fallen bookshelf or tree, stabbing, tornado, tumble down the stairs, strangling, drug overdose, fire, aneurysm. Not to mention the basics:  old age, cancer, pneumonia, other fatal illnesses. People have gone to great lengths to try and survive, but you just can’t. This guy, Lee Worshanks, in Pennsylvania, spent years working on what he called a Safety Room, the perfect place in which to spend his deathdate:  ideal temperature, rubber walls, dull-edged furniture, the works. When the Big Day rolled around, the room’s complicated security system somehow malfunctioned, and Lee found himself locked out. After hours of failed attempts to get inside his perfect room, he went a little nuts. He ended up electrocuted by some kind of circuit panel in the basement. So pretty much every possible variation on death in a house has happened to at least someone in the past few decades.

But you don’t know what the variation is, and you don’t know when in the day it will happen. That’s why the Sitting has always seemed insane to me. Who would ever want to be sitting in a room with their family for twenty-four hours straight? How is that anybody’s idea of a happy way to die?

Besides liking the narrator’s voice, I love how Rubin structures some of these sentences. This is a great passage to discuss syntax.  Look at that stand alone single sentence paragraph. Look at the lists and the use of the colon. And I love all those sentences that start with conjunctions. My students think that’s a grammatical error, and that leads to interesting discussions about why a writer might start a sentence with and or but or so.

I also love that example:  “This guy, Lee Worshanks, in Pennsylvania, spent years working on what he called a Safety Room, the perfect place in which to spend his deathdate. . .”

My students struggle with developing their ideas by using appropriate and convincing evidence. Here, right in a passage from a YA novel, is an example of an example I will use to illustrate examples with my writers. (My nerd factor is pretty high right now, isn’t it?)

Here’s the thing:  I loved attending that book festival with my niece. I loved listening to authors talk about their writing. I loved getting new ideas for books to share with my readers. And I really love that I found this one little passage in a pretty clever book about how we face and talk about death I can use with my students.

Reading is fun. Isn’t it?

*Note:  Did you know there’s a site that will predict the date you will die?

Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

Shana and I were privileged to present a session during #TheEdCollabGathering on Saturday. If you joined us live, thank you! If you’d like to see our session, here it is. If you have questions we did not answer, leave them in the comments. We’ll do our best to answer.

Choice as the Keystone in Secondary English Classes

A big thank you to @iChrisLehman and the EdCollab Community.

From John Green to Jane Austen: Student Choice and Motivating Non-Readers

Anyone who knows me knows I talk a lot about moving readers and writers by offering choice in the classroom. Without a doubt, the more I study the research on reading acquisition, the more I confer with my students and try to write about it, the more I immerse myself so I can immerse my students in engaging YA and award-winning literature, the louder my voice gets.

I am a full fledged advocate of readers and writers workshop at the secondary level.

And I’m not backing down.

This semester I have a student teacher who hears it from me every second of every day. Almost.

My ultimate goal is to tattoo Zach’s brilliant young mind with everything I’ve learned about teaching the past ten years. Everything that sent me to and cemented my pedagogy in workshop. And I think choice seals the ink that may change his teaching career forever.

But this pedagogy is not easy. Just like in a traditional classroom, students put up their fists and sometimes fight dirty. Sometimes they want to be told what to read and what to write and how to think. Sometimes too often.

And that is when this job gets hard.

Lately, it has been hard, and Zach has seen my frustrations. But he is smart, and he sees through student b.s with laser-like charm, problem-solving as I vent and complain.

I should be more controlled I tell myself every morning. Careful-what-you-say-Ame. But I can’t help it — my job is my sleeve. If I didn’t care so much about my students, their lives, their futures, I’d call it a day and tell Zach to take charge and have fun.

But I want him to learn. I want him to last in this profession that eats ’em up and spits ’em out. So I’ll share.

I’ll share what I’ve learned and how I’ve learned it. I’ll encourage. I’ll prod. I’ll challenge.

He’s a keeper I can already tell.

How do I know? Well, I asked if he’d write a post for this blog about reading YA literature for the first time. What does Zach do?

Oh, he writes, but he starts his own blog and tells me today: “I’ve got this friend who’s student teaching over in Northwest ISD, and she’s started blogging, so maybe we’ll start this new-teacher blog thing….”

You can still see my smile.

Here’s Zach’s post about his first adventure into YA literature. You’ll read it, and then you’ll want to hire him.

Yeah, I know.

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