Tag Archives: Jackie Catcher

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.

 

Imagining Our Ideal Bookshelves

My students are selfie experts; somehow, through practice, they have discovered the perfect angle, the right light, the exact method to fit ten people into one frame—while still managing to make their head look normal-sized.  In those fleeting snapshots, they capture the essence of who they are (or at times who they want to be), if only for a second.

I believe that the books we read can serve as small photographs of our hopes, dreams, desires, and curiosities.  They provide a  snapshot of who we were, who we are, or who we want to become.

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Julia’s highly organized ideal shelf

As a final project, my AP Literature and Composition students completed an “ideal bookshelf,” inspired by the book My Ideal Bookshelf and a quick write I completed in Penny Kittle’s summer class two years ago.  The assignment was relatively simple—create your own ideal bookshelf of the books that “represent you—the books that have changed your life, that have made you who you are today, your favorite favorites” (La Force xi).  Since this is an AP Literature class, I added a twist—I wanted students to stock their shelves with books that not only transformed them as a person, but also developed them as a reader.

As each student presented on their shelf, they transformed from self-assured seniors to wide-eyed children who relayed the story of the first book they had ever fallen in love with.  Many of them spoke of how they either found or developed their passion for art,

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Max’s science-based book shelf

coaching, theatre, computers, and physics through books they had found over 18 years.  The books they listed did more than just challenge them as readers; these books had the power to inspire, entertain, and heal.  As Claudia wrote about The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, “I have no real idea what is so special about it, but I’m not going to question its magical powers when it does so much good for me.”

 

 

What I loved most is how these shelves found life through details; Julia’s shelf held her drawing notebook, Cam’s his favorite cookbook, and Payton’s was adorned with her grandmother’s locket, which she uses as a bookmark.  Some shelves were neat and orderly, perfectly stacked, while others, like Sammie’s were a bit more scattered.  As Sammie put it, “I don’t know what I want to do as a profession; I am still figuring it out.  That partially explains the disarray that is my bookshelf.  I couldn’t decide which would be more practical, stacking or leaning.  The result is a bookshelf with a little bit of both.”

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Sammie’s slightly scattered ideal shelf

As my seniors complete the next three weeks and begin the process of preparing for college, I want them to walk away with the writing and analytical skills we’ve honed all year, but more than anything, I want them to remember why they fell in love with reading in the first place.  I want them to question why books are powerful and understand that the universality of a novel’s message can change readers.  I want them to read for knowledge and depth and challenges, but I also want them to accept that not everything needs to be analyzed, dissected or picked apart.  In fact, sometimes we read for escapism, for love, for adventure.  For many, this might be the last English class they take.  Hopefully, it is only the start of a lifetime of reflective reading and ideal bookshelves.

 

 

Using Picture Books as Secondary Mentor Texts

This year my family ditched the traditional Christmas festivities for a week in Orlando,

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Disney started his work as a cartoonist in high school.  How can we carve these same creative spaces for our own students?

Florida.  Swapping fur boots for flip flops, we ran around Walt Disney World, weaving in and out of storybook rides and watching teeny princesses wobble around Cinderella’s castle.  Only now that I am grown do I have a true appreciation for the sheer magnitude of Walt Disney’s brilliance.  He built a physical world of stories.

Disney doodled his way through high school; he honed his craft through drawing and photography classes.  Unfortunately, few curricula allow for the same creative exploration for students.  Oftentimes, the countless possibilities for storytelling and narration tend to center on only real-life experiences, personal narratives, when in reality, writing fiction opens up an entirely different world for self-exploration.

This year I swapped out our traditional multi-scene personal narrative for a story unit in which I taught many of the same narrative craft marks using a combination of fiction and non-fiction mentor texts.

The greatest challenge I faced was in finding short, succinct, and well-crafted stories that weren’t twenty pages long.  While I love short stories, I knew many of my freshmen would not only lose stamina if asked to write such lengthy pieces , but they would also struggle with translating the story structure of these mentors into their own pieces.  I began my hunt for a strong mentor text in, of all places, the children’s section of the library.

Objectives:  In alignment with the Common Core, students will write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen detail, and well-structured event sequences. Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge levels, students will recognize a wide variety of craft marks in fictional writing.  They will identify patterns and compare effectiveness through discussion. They will formulate their own stories, revising them, and finally applying their understanding to future writing assignments.

Lesson:  I find writing fictional stories intimidating.  My plots seem to sag in some areas, or my dialogue doesn’t feel authentic, but many of my students love leaving their reality to explore their own creative worlds.  The vast majority read fiction, so its only natural that their reading interests feed into their writing curiosity.  The problem is that their greatest mentor texts are, on average, 250 pages long.

Screen-Shot-2014-11-07-at-1.51.36-PM-1514mm8The Promise written by Nicola Davies and illustrated by Laura Carlin is a beautifully crafted story of a girl growing up in a hardened city. After stealing a purse from a pedestrian, the main character makes a promise out of desperation, only to realize that the purse she has stolen has no value and is instead full of acorns, which she must now plant across the city.  The story reads more like a poem and has a cyclical ending that allows students to see the succinct structure of a short story.

Prior to sharing the story I type up the entire story book (which comes out to two pages) so that the students may access the text without the pictures.  I present it to them as a short story, and we read it aloud like any other mentor text, but I do not tell them it is a picture book!

I ask students to look at the structure of the story—what do they notice about how the author formatted the story as a whole.  Since we just finished studying plot in our literature circles, many of the students dig in to find the rising action and climax while others simply read and re-read to comb through the intricacies of the structure.  Almost all of the students notice The Promise’s cyclical ending that reinforces the story’s themes of redemption and the beauty of nature.

I have them return a second time to the story to look at the writer’s craft.  Students make a list of author’s moves within their writer’s notebook.  If they see something that intrigues them but they aren’t sure of the name, I have them describe what they notice and we develop a name for the skill together as a class.  Finally, we compile our observations onto a large sticky note that remains on display throughout the unit.  Students must then choose two of the craft marks to experiment with in their own writing.

Finally, once we have finished working with the piece, I reveal to students that The Promise is a picture book and I read it aloud.  Oftentimes students are shocked to hear that such a complex story is written for children, but their initial reading makes them value the intricacy of the writer’s work even more.

Follow-Up:  Not only did my students fall in love with the writing process, but they also asked thoughtful questions and engaged in deeper conversations about their writing.  One of my favorite conversations between two jocks involved the complexity of a fight between an alien, human, and zombie.

As a final follow-up, I had students complete a self-revision sheet.  They peer reviewed each other’s work and finally wrote a metacognitive reflection in which they discussed the craft moves they made and how they structured their story.

The freedom to write fiction or nonfiction opened doors for many of the students who tend to struggle with developing ideas while reinforcing many of the craft marks we studied (leads, plot, sensory details, concrete details, internal and external dialogue) in our snapshot narrative unit. As Griffin said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever written because I’ve gone back and looked at my work in the past.  Fiction is easier because you can make up whatever you want.”

 

 

4 Monthly Challenges to Beat the Winter Reading Slump

New England winters lend themselves to steamy mugs of cocoa, plush blankets, and chilly evenings curled around a book.  Despite the ideal environment, halfway through the year, some of my students hit a reading slump.  The initial momentum of the reading initiative subsides, leaving students a bit more lackluster come second semester.

In turn, here are four challenges I plan to integrate over the next three months to beat the winter slump and reinvigorate students’ passion for reading.

1. January: Reading Bingo and Challenge Lists

The New Year, or for us, the second semester lends itself to fresh reading goals.  Goal-setting and self-reflection aside, I love reading challenges that push students to step out of their reading comfort zone and delve into new genres.  This year I comYA-Reading-Bingo-Challenge-2014piled a variety of reading challenge lists that I’ll be printing out on bookmarks to provide to my students.

I personally love the #26BookswithBringingUpBurns challenge, which has readers fulfilling challenges like reading “A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit” and “A book with a color in the title.”  I’m also enjoying Rebeccah Giltrow’s BookaShelf 2016 Reading Challenge, which has participants base their book choices on the alphabet.  For example, “A” stands for “a book with an apocalyptical theme.”  Finally, Random House’s “YA Reading Bingo” is the perfect way to get students reading through rows of books while competing with one another to fill in a bingo card.

2. February: Book Trysts and Library Dates 

February lends itself to romance with Valentine’s Day, so to celebrate our book love, students will set up blind dates for some of their favorite books.  They will cover their choices in brown packing paper and write “dating profiles” including intriguing qualities readers will hopefully fall for.

In addition, students will participate in a library “date” with a friend from class.  Inspired by this “date night at the library” post by The Dating Divas, I created a list of entertaining and useful tasks and challenges for students to complete.  From “finding a book authored by someone with the same name” to “finding a book that has been made into a movie,” this friendly competition will put books in students’ hands while also promoting conversations revolving their reading.

3. March: March Madness and the Literary Hashtag Challenge

As March Madness approaches, my basketball students will be building teams and taking bets.  I know little about basketball…but I do know about books, which is why I’m hoping to create a March Madness that looks similar to Shana’s last year.  For those looking to create student-based teams, Principal Justin Cameron’s “Fantasy Reading League” at Frederick W. Hartnett Middle School gets the entire school involved in the competition together.

Finally, in March I will launch a new literary hashtag challenge that asks students to IMG_1801.PNGexhibit their reading lives outside of school.  Students will e-mail a Twitter or Instagram class account with literary images that include the following hashtags: #LiterarySwag (a hashtag for fashionistas who know books can serve as a stylish statement piece for any outfit), #Shelfie (a hashtag for beautiful bookshelves), #IReadEverywhere (a hashtag to highlight reading in unique places), and my favorite #BookFace (a hashtag that pushes people to be a bit more creative with their book covers).

By putting new books in students’ hands, I’m hoping to inspire a little competition, a lot of conversation, and a passion that will turn them into lifelong readers.

 

How do you reinvigorate students’ passion for reading?  What tips do you have to make it through the winter reading slump?

 

#FridayReads: 8 Stocking Stuffers That Will Change Your Classroom

While I love the beautiful handmade gifts of my students the most, there are a couple untraditional stocking stuffers that I’m putting on my Christmas wish list this year.  These are the tried and true tools that somehow keep my classroom just a bit more sane during those hectic moments (like the days leading up to holiday break).  So in the last eight days before Christmas, here are eight stocking stuffers for a colleague, teaching friend, or even yourself!

  1. Headphones: This was the greatest gift my cooperating teacher gave me. His secret was to always keep extra sets of ear buds handy.  To this day, I stock up on cheap headphones from Marshalls (and alcohol wipes to clean them) at the beginning of the school year. Oftentimes it helps some of my antsier students tune out their surroundings and dial into their writing.
  1. Crazy Aaron’s Thinking Putty: Amy bought this for me this past candy-cane-9summer, and it is a miracle worker.  I initially brought it in for a student who has severe ADHD.  He was oftentimes overstimulated by his peers.  Playing with the thinking putty changed his behavior drastically.  What I love most is the thicker viscosity of the putty keeps students more engaged…and it comes in holiday colors, including white christmas, gelt, and candy cane.
  1. Conferring Chair: I wrote about my conferring chair here, but I cannot stress enough what an impact having this chair has had on accessing my students within the classroom. Last year I spent time kneeling next to students or awkwardly standing over them as they sat at their desks. Purchasing a conferring chair that was lightweight, foldable, and small allowed me to discreetly enter conversations, conference with students, and set up mini workshop areas throughout the classroom.
  1. Awesome Citations: I love giving my students small pick-me-ups, 12098_Awesome_1which include these quirky “awesome citations” I found at a novelty shop. I enjoy filling them out, leaving a small note at the bottom, and either tucking them into writer’s notebooks or dropping them off at unexpected times.
  1. Writing Prompt Books: As the advisor of Writer’s Club, I can’t get enough of writing prompt books like The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas to Jump-Start Your Imagination by Jason Rekulak, 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and 100 Quickwrites by Linda Rief. Not only do I pull them out during club meetings, but I use them as inspiration for class quick-writes, or to begin brainstorming for independent writing pieces.
  1. Magnets: Magnets might not be on the top of your wish list, but they are exceptionally convenient when it comes to students’ presentations of writing, artwork, or posters. Odd, yes, but I love when my students can present hands-free without the awkwardness of holding large posters or pictures for other group members.
  1. Coloring Meditation Books: I love keeping photocopied pages from coloring meditation books on hand for spare moments. Not only are they calming for many students, particularly those with anxiety, but 51N8TdfrZ6L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_they are also great for extra time during club meetings and advisory or homeroom periods…or, as one of my students said, “My mom loves doing those when she drinks wine.” That is always an option for tired teachers too.
  1. My True Love Gave to Me: High school English teachers (and their students) will love this anthology of Christmas stories from top YA authors including some of my favorites, Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan, and Matt De La Pena!

 

What is on your teaching wish list or gift list this season?

 

 

 

#3TTWorkshop–Tackling the Challenges of Conferring

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

This week’s conversation took root over a year ago in a hotel room at NCTE in Washington D.C.  As with many of our TTT get togethers, we threw out a question from our classrooms and began discussing our struggles, questions, and ideas.  This time it was Amy, asking about conferring.  The three of us mutually agreed that one of the greatest challenges we face as workshop teachers includes conferences, yet while they take time, practice, and diligence, they are one of the most necessary and rewarding components of the workshop classroom.

In this week’s conversation, Amy and Jackie discuss the the value of conferring within the reader’s writer’s workshop.  

Make sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the comments!

How do you meet with every student when your class sizes have 30 or more students?13b04fad-66ef-4eca-83df-3f0c7412bd48

Amy:  I come back to that word — purposeful. If we plan to meet with students in conferences, and we craft lessons that allow for students to work independently for a time, we can meet with students one-on-one. Yes, when our classes are large, we may not get around to meeting with each of them as often as we like, but consider the alternative — never talking face-to-face with our students. The more I talk with my students about their needs and what would help them learn more in school the more they tell me they crave conversations with adults who will listen to the things they care about and believe in. They want adults to validate them.

Say we have a class of thirty students, and we only meet with each one of them three times in the semester — that is three times more one-on-one contact with a caring adult they would have had otherwise. Every bit of time matters.

I wrote a post with ideas for conferring with students when our class sizes are large here. My favorite is the bundle conference — no, I really like the one in the hallway. Really, any chance to talk to a reader about her reading is one I cherish.

Jackie: I am fortunate that I do not have classes over 30, but like Amy says, there are ways to reach such a large group of students.  It isn’t easy, but it’s possible.  I advise Writers Club and Government Club, so I know I can reach at least a couple students during that time.  I also have a handful of students who stay in my room during my prep, duty, lunch, or after school to work on homework and reading.  This means that I see anywhere between six to ten students in alternative settings where we can chat about books.  

I  also use workshop time to meet with table groups, which consist of four students each, just the right amount of students to chat about books while still gaining some more individualized attention.  Furthermore, as Amy mentioned, I rely on bundle conferences when discussing writing.  Just last week, I managed to conference with my twenty AP Literature students about their essays in just over an hour of workshop time.  Today, one of my students approached me after class, thanking me for the conferencing time and the additional one-on-one tutoring time during a study hall.  He said that he felt significantly more confident approaching his essay this past Friday after having such individualized feedback.

Amy:  I forgot to add — sometimes I schedule conferences with students. If I notice that I haven’t met with someone for a long time, or if I notice he’s stuck in the same book for too long a time, I’ll invite him to confer during lunch or after school. Personal invitations mean a lot to students who for whatever reason “I haven’t got a round to yet.”

Just last week I tapped Tony on the shoulder and asked that he meet with me during lunch. I’d noticed that he rarely checked out books from my classroom library, yet his record of his reading kept getting longer. I really thought this students was fake reading and calling it good, and since Tony has a lot of social capital I feared he was sending a negative message to his classmates. Tony sat with me for about five minutes during lunch tutorials. I asked about his reading, and he told me enough to know that he really was reading. He told me he thinks he needs to try harder books. So we talked about what books might interest him. I then asked if he knew how much of an example he is with his peers. His eyes started to glow and he smiled a little. “Yeah, I guess so,” he finally said. We talked about the kind of leader he wants to be, and when Tony left my room, we both felt better about what he is accomplishing in class this year. That is the kind of conference I love to have with students, and it provides the one-on-one attention often missing when students share classroom space and one teacher with twenty-nine other students.

What are your best conversation starters?

Jackie: Amy, I’m curious about your most successful conversation starters, particularly the ones you use with those tougher students who struggle to stay engaged.  I know that many of my struggling readers love learning from their reading.  They enjoy “getting something” out of their books, which means that I tend to talk to them about their hobbies and how it relates to their book.  One of my self-defined “non-readers” has been working on a hockey book since the beginning of the year.  I love hearing about what he has learned and why it is valuable to his only success as a hockey player.  I also enjoy hearing about why a student chose the book they did.  Their responses can be unexpected and even surprising.  It reinforces the fact that they have a choice in their education.

cdbf4b4e-bd86-48eb-8f05-004647b7396aAmy: I tried to keep track of what I say to start a conversation, thinking I’d realize I say something like Carl Anderson suggests in his book “How’s it Going?” Sure, sometimes I say that, but really, my conversation starter depends on the student. It changes all the time. The important thing to remember is to get our students talking about their reading experiences. Our role is to listen. If we do not listen, we do not have a chance to assess where our students might need help, where the gaps in comprehension are, or how we may encourage them to take risks and try something more challenging so they grow. We need to remember to let the student direct the conference. I still struggle with this sometimes.

Suppose I say: “Tell me what you’re thinking about this book.” Depending on the student, he’s likely to say “It’s good” or “It’s okay.” That just means I have to ask another question to get the student talking. But if I ask something specific about the student and/or the book, I can usually spark a conversation immediately. For example, I love to ask questions about book covers, especially if I can tell a student is about half way through the book.

I’ll say something like: “I can see you’re about halfway through. I wonder if you’ve thought about the book cover design at all. You know, most people judge a book by the cover. How well do you think the cover represents the book so far? Based on what you’ve read, why do you think that?” This lead works well for book titles, too. Of course, I want my students to talk about their books in a way that I know they are actually reading them, but more importantly, I want my students to be able to talk to me about what they are thinking about their books as they read. This is difficult for many students, but the more I encourage and validate and stay consistent with conferring, the easier it gets for them.

Jackie: You are right–there is no scripted answer to asking the right question, but as you said, some promote more discussion than others.  I also enjoy having students compare their current reading books to the ones they’ve read previously.  After picking up The Compound  at the urging of his friends, one student said, “I actually think Dopesick [by Walter Dean Myers] is better than this book.”  His willingness to state his opinion led the same friends who recommended The Compound to turn around and read Dopesick.

What do you do if you figure out a student isn’t reading during your conversation?

Amy:  I wish I didn’t have to answer this question. I wish I could say all my students read. Just isn’t true. I’ve written a few times already this year about how I still have non-readers. I mentioned it in my #FridayReads post last week. I’ve found the two major reasons my students tell me they do not want to read: 1. I’m too busy, 2. I don’t like reading. Not necessarily in that order.

When I discover in a conference that a student is stuck in his book — bored with it, or just flat out flipping pages — we talk. I try to get him talking about his passions.

Most of my boys love soccer. “Why do you love that sport?” I’ll ask, and usually, he will describe the friendships with the guys on the team, the love of being outdoors, the competition. I want him to show me emotion about something he loves.

Then, I’ll say something like:  “I don’t know much about soccer. I’ve never played. How can you help me love it?” And he’ll go off talking about exercise and health and having fun. I listen and nod.

Then, I’ll ask: “What do you suppose that has to do with reading?”

And sometimes he gets it, and he’ll say, “You mean like if I never read I may never know if I like it?”

Of course, then I pile him up with book choices and encourage him to try a book he thinks looks interesting. We talk about the importance of reading the first several pages, hopefully in one sitting, to give the author enough time to draw us into the story. And then I monitor this reader closely. I do not wait to talk with him in a week or two. I talk with him as soon as I see him again and ask what page he is on and if he likes the book. These are the students we tenderly nurse along until they can get up and run on their own.

Jackie: It’s funny that states away we use the same comparison.  I am constantly talking with my students about how reading is like exercising and how our brains are muscles that require nurturing as well.  I remind myself of this metaphor every time I go to the gym, everytime I try a new exercise class I loathe, and every time I look at the ridiculously jacked woman next to me who is jogging at my breakneck speed.  

Reading requires patience; we do not become readers overnight.  I think what shocks my students most though is my resilience to find a book they will enjoy.  I go through a similar process as you, Amy.  Asking what about the book is tedious or boring, helping them make time by offering my classroom before and after school.  I will stop at nothing to find a book that catches their interest, even if that means devoting shopping trips to that one kid who hasn’t read a whole book since the start of the year.  For those tougher kids, I know that one book can change them.  The trickiest and most exhilarating part is finding that book to transform their outlook.

Amy:  Tricky and exhilarating = absolutely. I love this work, and I know the value of students building stamina, growing in confidence, and challenging themselves into more complex texts. Of course, all those things happen as a result of regular and consistent conferring practices. Every time I feel like my reading workshop gets stuck, or kids are not reading like I think they should be, I pick up the notebook with my records and start conferring more. It might not work magic, but it’s close.

 

Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning From My Mistakes

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A student caught sneaking his independent reading book into his lit circle novel…this is a first.

Every year I arrive at the second quarter with a new approach, idea, or plan.  This will be the solution! I think.  This will sustain momentum.  This will help us make it through the slump.  This will be the difference between dreading quarter two and praying for quarter three, but year after year, I am wrong.  For the past three years I’ve convinced myself it is the book—Lord of the Flies is too boring; they can’t appreciate Bradbury’s language in Fahrenheit 451.

The problem isn’t with my students though—it’s with me.  I am doing it wrong, and while I am ashamed to admit the honest truth, I realize now the error of my ways.

I “gave up” traditional teaching three years ago, when I transitioned to a workshop model of education.  I carved out time for reading, instated notebooks, poured over workshop guides, and asked countless questions of my mentors and colleagues.  The bare bones were in place, and I was convinced that I had the structure necessary to shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom built on choice.  In many cases I did; every start of the school year began smoothly with excited readers and passionate writers.  We told stories, read poetry, shared quick writes, and analyzed craft, but I dreaded quarter two, the quarter when together, we would read our first of three required whole class novels.

Quarter two was when I lost their voices, their attention, and their passion.  With whole class novels, our focus shifted from “who are you and what are you thinking?” to “who is your author and what is he thinking?” 

Under the weight of scaffolding, curriculum standards, core competencies, and competency based rubrics, my mini-lessons focused on literary terminology instead of literary exploration.  To me, reading mini-lessons meant teaching the same terms I’d grown up with: symbolism, Freytag’s pyramid, direct and indirect characterization, round and flat characters, etc.  This meant my lessons shifted from writing-centered lessons that started with the question, “What do you notice about the author’s craft?” to terminology-centered lessons, that started with, “Apply your understanding of (fill in the blank) to the book.”  The latter produced significantly less empowering results.

So, I asked and probed my students.  I peppered them with questions during study halls and extra help; I snuck in questions with the straggling Writer’s Club members after meetings, gave out surveys, and chatted at lunch with colleagues.  And while I was convinced that it was because I was “forcing” them to read unrelatable classics, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was missing something bigger.

By the time I sat down with my living mentor Linda Rief at a coffee shop in Exeter, I realized I was doing it wrong in quarter two.  The pieces gradually added up—I knew the three reading options I had given them for literature circles weren’t choices at all.  I was hoping they would read the books in their entirety, but I knew that this year would lend itself to additional groans, frustration, and abandonment.  At the end of the day, I was a workshop teacher defaulting to a traditional methodology or worse, was I a traditional teacher pretending to run a workshop?

The two greatest pieces of advice came first via my special educator mother, who asked, “Why not just teach them good writing?  Isn’t that what classics are?” And second through Linda Rief, who pointblank asked me why I needed to teach plot triangles anyways.

Were there successes in my literature circle unit? Most definitely.  Sure, the vast majority didn’t fall in love with Golding, and it breaks my heart that they couldn’t revel in the beauty of Bradbury’s language, but in final surveys, nearly every student appreciated the time they had to discuss the novels in small groups.  They enjoyed talking about the stories with peers, and while not all of them loved the books, many pointed out that this was the first time they engaged in authentic conversations about literature without a teacher moderating the discussions.  They learned; they just didn’t learn the way I had hoped.

Part of me feels like I lost four weeks that we could have spent more effectively growing together as readers and writers while looking at the beauty of craft in book clubs centered on young adult lit of their choosing.  The other part of me feels like I failed my students in providing this idealized version of what I hoped our class would be and then slamming them back to reality with the same sort of stock analysis I question.

I am impatient when it comes to growth, particularly when it comes to my teaching.  While I understand my students’ needs as developing readers and writers, I am quick to judge my own struggles.  Even as an intern, one of my personal goals was “to be at the level of a second year teacher.”  I repeated this mantra knowing full well that the only way to be at the level of a second year teacher was to be a second year teacher.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.

Mini-Lesson Monday: Plot Pyramids in Reading and Writing

2000px-Freytags_pyramid.svgThis year I experimented with literature circles to not only explore four of the popular whole class reads associated with our ninth grade curriculum but to also inject some choice into the required reading.  This was my first time attempting literature circles and while I recognized the potential struggles, my hope was to inspire open conversations about these complex and challenging texts.  In the past, class conversations with my students were dead and lackluster.  They were oftentimes reduced to leading plot-based questions. This year though, I couldn’t take a second quarter of policing reading, empty conversations, and painful silences, which meant I opened class time to small group conversation and taught reading skills through mini-lessons.  My classroom shifted from teacher-centered lessons on books to student-centered conversations on reading.

Objectives: Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels, students will draw, identify, and label the multiple components of Freytag’s Pyramid.  They will construct a plot pyramid using class notes and apply the concepts learned within the mini-lesson to construct their own plot pyramid based on their literature circle’s chosen book.  Students will summarize the moments within the book that coordinate with the various points on the plot pyramid, citing evidence from their book to support their analysis.  Finally, using guiding questions, students will discuss and critique the author’s use of plot to move the story forward.

 Lesson:  I began class with a recap on Freytag’s Pyramid.  Many of my students had seen this traditional plot triangle in sixth grade but hadn’t revisited the concept since then.    They understood that plot provides the backbone of the story, yet to them, plots looked rather one-dimensional, rising perfectly at a 45-degree angle, peaking smack in the center of the story through one climax, then cleanly declining at the same 45-degree angle.

Avid readers know this is far from the case: if every book had the stereotypical plot-triangle-shape, there’d be no sense in reading.  It would be as perfectly predictable as Hallmark’s line of holiday movies (although I admit I love them just the same).  Good readers understand that plots are messy; they jut out at multiple angles, taking longer to rise in some cases or providing a false climax only to plateau and eventually rise farther.

IMG_1288I typically like to use novels I am currently reading and/or studying to model my analysis of plot.  This year I discussed Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison as an episodic novel since I am studying it with my AP Literature students.  Other options include previously studied short stories, whole class reads, or popular novels-turned-films.

I then provide students with time and guiding questions to draw and create their own plot triangle that they will then present to the class.  As they chart their plots providing explanations and evidence, they must also answer the following: What makes your plot shape distinctive? How might it differ from other books you’ve read?  What is the climax? How did your group decide on the climax? Why do you think the author decided to place the climax where they did?  How did the structure impact your personal reading of the piece?  Did the structure create suspense or the did the rising action last too long?

The conversation part of this is key; my students’ success derived directly from their ability to sit with their peers and draw out the plot’s structure.  In the end, many students struggled with distinctly placing the climax.  This gave me time to sit with groups and help guide their understanding.  They had deep conversations over the artistic choices of their authors, arguing that Golding could have decreased his rising action in Lord of the Flies or that Steinbeck’s decision to place Lennie’s death at the end of Of Mice and Men had the greatest impact.

Some students claimed that there were multiple climaxes in their novels while others were adamant that only one existed.  These discussions culminated in consensus, which students then shared with their peers. In the end, each group arrived with a firmer understanding of how plot can guide readers through suspense, excitement, and tragedy.

Follow-Up: This mini-lesson is two-fold.  It serves as a basis for deeper literary analysis, but it also provides a starting point for my next free writing unit.  Over the next couple weeks, students will harvest an idea from their writer’s notebooks, workshop the pieces, and finalize them prior to the holiday.

Using their knowledge of plot from our literature circles, they will apply these concepts to their own stories, completing exercises from The Plot Whisperer Workbook by Martha Alderson to help structure their narratives, fiction, and poetry.  I’m hoping that this recycled mini-lesson and common concepts will reinforce the interconnectedness of reading, writing, and craft.

How do you approach plot with your students? What mini-lessons do you make a point of revisiting throughout your year?

#3TT Workshop: Assessing Writer’s Notebooks and Sparking Engagement

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Recently Three Teachers Talk received an inquiry regarding our use of Writer’s Notebooks.  Naturally, this question got us talking–what do notebooks look like between New Hampshire and Texas, Freshman English and AP Language and Composition?

We all agree that Writer’s Notebooks are one of the essential tools to a successful classroom, but integrating and sustaining them can prove challenging.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Amy seeks to explore some of the ins and outs of writer’s notebooks by discussing what we, as teachers, consciously choose to include in our students’ notebooks and what we decide to leave out.

Make sure to visit the first installment of our conversation, and please join the conversation in the comments!

As the year progresses, how do you keep students engaged in their writer’s notebooks?  How do you help students to recognize their inherent value?

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.34.55 PMAmy:  Well, we do use our notebooks every day. Of course, this helps with keeping students invested in their use. This year I wish I had taken more time to have students decorate their notebooks, really take ownership of them. I love how Jackie setup collage stations and took the time for this with her students. Students care more about their notebooks when they have taken the time to personalize them.

My students also come to value their notebooks more during our conferences. For example, today I met with a student to talk about her reading life. I asked her how she felt she was progressing. She told me that she was stumped because “I keep abandoning books. I’ve started 10 this year, but I’ve only completed four.” I asked to see her Currently Reading List in her writer’s notebook. She did not have it updated. First, we took some time to write all her titles down, and then we marked ‘finished’ or ‘abandoned’ like I’d hoped she would do all along (my fault for not checking notebooks with more fidelity.) Once we had a complete list of the books this students had tried, I was able to talk her through why she might have needed to let them go. We zeroed in on the narrators. The books she has finished have unique narrators:  a dog, a voice in verse, an 11 year old boy, an autistic 16-year-old. We then talked about the narrators of the other books — all third person omniscient, which she did not know, so I taught her the term in a mini mini-lesson. Together we learned that when the narrator “goes off into some other character’s part of the story, I get confused.” This was a powerful learning experience for my student, and a great reminder to me. There is power in the IMG_0163writer’s notebook. It can be our primary teaching resource.

Jackie: Sustaining interest in writer’s notebooks throughout the year can be a difficult task; students must be invested in and committed to their notebooks to understand their full value.  I believe sustained investment comes with consistent use.  As Amy mentioned, the collages at the beginning of the year helped students connect to their notebooks.  Even now I have students adding to their collages or entirely recovering their notebooks.  

Using notebooks everyday also reinforces the value of these tools.  I talk about them constantly, conduct notebook checks throughout the year, and ask to see them during reading conferences.  I display example pages in a giant writer’s notebook, and I typically ask students to write their drafts by hand.

How (and how often) do you assess writer’s notebooks?

Jackie: Writer’s Notebooks provide a safe space for play within the writing process.  To become confident and secure writers, students must have a low stakes area to both visualize and enjoy the process of putting pencil to paper.  That being said, notebooks are also valuable because they provide me with insight into a student’s thought process, progress, and personal exploration.  

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Students’ notebook pages are displayed in a giant writer’s notebook.

My grading process is relatively simple.  I keep a list of notebook contents on a board in my classroom, adding to the board every day.  Notebook checks take place every two-to-three weeks depend on the class content and units.  A week before we have a notebook check, I provide students with a checklist, with which they self-grade and return upon notebook submission.  On notebook check day, students use mini-sticky notes to mark two pages, one page they want me to respond to, and another page they want to display for their peers in our class’ giant writer’s notebook.  This process reinforces that students are writing for a wider audience than myself, while also embracing the messiness and imperfection that comes with writing.  I value the scribbled drafts full of doodles for the sole reason that they model the realness of writing, the fact that these pieces, while fun and entertaining still require molding and modeling to become a polished final piece.

While my grading is low stakes, I file writer’s notebooks under summative assessments for a few different reasons: it helps me assess student’s executive functioning skills, which is particularly important for my freshmen and struggling learners.  In my school, it allows students to “retake” the assessment, requiring them to revisit, revise, and refashion.  The more they return to the contents of their notebook and develop its structure, the more invested they become in the final product.  Finally, notebooks align with the common core, which is essential in my competency-based grading school.  They help “students develop and strengthen writing” (W.9-10.5), “write routinely over extended…and shorter time frames” (W.9-10.10), and “determine the meaning of words and phrases [in their dictionary section]” (RL.9-10.4).

Amy:  I’ve tried scoring the whole of the notebook. I even have a glue in for how I would if I did. I am not disciplined enough. I find short chunks much easier to manage, and I can zip around the room and look at everyone’s personal dictionary to see if it is up-to-date in the first 15 minutes of class while students are reading. Or I can collect notebooks and look at just the skill we practiced that day. These always equate to completion grades. Sometimes I’ll pass out sticky notes and ask students to mark whatever writing they’d like me to read. I learn important information about my students this way. When students share their hearts with me, I value it in a way that is so much more important than a grade. How would I ever grade that anyway?

How do you keep your students excited about their writer’s notebooks throughout the year?  How do you assess notebooks without stifling creativity?

 

#3TT Workshop: The Ins and Outs of Writer’s Notebooks

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Recently Three Teachers Talk received an inquiry regarding our use of Writer’s Notebooks.  Naturally, this question got us talking–what do notebooks look like between New Hampshire and Texas, Freshman English and AP Language and Composition?

We all agree that writer’s notebooks are one of the essential tools to a successful classroom, but integrating and sustaining them can prove challenging.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Amy seeks to explore some of the ins and outs of writer’s notebooks by discussing what we, as teachers, consciously choose to include in our students’ notebooks and what we decide to leave out.

Please join the conversation in the comments and check back for the second installment tomorrow!

Why are writer’s notebooks important in your classroom?  What value do they hold?

IMG_1485Jackie: Notebooks are the lifeblood of my writing curriculum.  My students need a safe space to practice low stakes writing.  Too often they’ve been forced to write formally, slogging through rough and final drafts of disconnected, five-paragraph essays.  The formality of it all removes the artistry, pleasure, and process of writing.  

I enjoy the controlled messiness of notebooks and the voices I rarely heard as a first year teacher.  Honestly, writing brings me closer to my students.  It connects my classes, makes students recognize their peers are indeed human, and at the end of the day, gives many of my kids, as Ralph Fletcher says, “A room of [their] own.”

Amy:  I am all about organization. Often, my students have a difficult time keeping up with everything they need to practice, track, monitor, and evaluate their reading and writing lives. Our writer’s notebooks make all of this easier. The value of a daily writer’s notebook rises with each use of it.

How do you integrate writer’s notebooks into your classroom? How are they set up?

Jackie: We start using our Writer’s Notebooks the second day of school, when I help students establish the various sections in their composition books.  

My sections, which are all pulled from Linda Rief’s Inside the Writer’s-Reader’s Notebook, include the following: 1. Books Read (a log of the books they read throughout the year), 2. Inspiration Page (where students keep story ideas, photos, images, etc), 3. Graffiti Wall (For beautifully crafted sentences from their independent reading or inspiring quotes), 4. Notes and Entries (the bulk of the notebook), 5. Wondrous Words Dictionary (where they keep their vocabulary from their independent reading), and 6. Books to Read (a list of books they want to read).  

Our notebooks are our single most important tool within the classroom, which means that this is where we store all of our quick writes, writing, rough drafts, notes, minilessons, mentor texts, and thinking.  

When we aren’t writing in class, students independently write three pages outside of class per week.  This independent writing allows them to develop quick writes, explore various writing prompts, or jot down potential ideas.  As author Janet Burroway says, “The best place for permission is a private place, and for that reason a writer’s journal is an essential, likely to be the source of originality, ideas, experimentation, and growth.”  The act of writing helps students not only develop their voice, but it also serves as a safe space to explore various writing styles.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 3.33.19 PM (1)Amy:  My students and I set up notebooks with similarities to Jackie’s. Ours look like this:  We’ve got our main reading goal written right smack dab on the front page. Then we’ve got the “currently reading list” on the next. We’ve got a “to read next list” on the very back page, so as I do book talks — or students talk about books with each other, they are able to keep a running list of titles that sound interesting. (This is a time saver in helping students who just finished a book find another one to read relatively quickly.) In the very middle of our notebooks, we’ve got our “personal dictionaries.” These are the words students find and define from their independent reading (five words a week). We also have a poetry section where we respond to poetry, or glue in poems and write around them. There’s a “write my life” section where students write an entry a week about anything they please. And we have a “reader’s response” section that we write our thinking about our books, articles, etc — pretty much any other kind of text other than poems.

I did something new this year and created notebook glue-ins. I thought this would be helpful to remind students of what went where and the expectations for learning and growth I have for each section. Honestly, I do a poor job of checking notebooks with any kind of regularity — although I do check parts of them at least every other week — so I don’t know if the glue-ins are valuable yet or not.

Jackie: I agree about the glue-ins, Amy.  While I haven’t gone that far, I have students trim down mentor examples, checklists, and typed rough drafts and tape them into their notebooks.  It keeps them better organized and makes it easy to return to previous craft lessons.

Why do you value writer’s notebooks, and how do you integrate them into your classrooms?  What successes have you had with your notebooks this year? What challenges might you still face?  

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