Tag Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Beyond Hillbilly Elegy: Books for Country Boys

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Bull with a few of his favorite books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I loved watching reading transform Bull.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Three Comic Book Commandments

I went to a college known for giving students a lot of reading.  The main library stays open until 11 on Friday and Saturday nights.  If that wasn’t enough, there were five bookstores within walking distance of campus.   The best bookstore of the bunch was in a church basement that was so big and so confusing it had a map.  

 

So here I was in book paradise, where everybody had opinions on books down to which translation of the Iliad was most legit and which edition of Shakespare’s plays had the best commentary.  But no kinds of books could get us as worked up as comic books could, and it was comic books we were trading with abandon, not different versions of Troilus and Cressida.

 

As passionate readers, we realized that books can do many things, including feed the soul.  Comic books fed our souls.

 

We were not “smart” with comics the way we might be “smart” with Heidegger.  We did not underline, post-it note, highlight, or read with a lens for character or theme.  Instead, we just read.  And after we read, we traded.

 

Comic books (or graphic novels, I use the words interchangeably) are a crucial part of my reading life, and I urge you to make them a part of yours, too by honoring three comic book commandments:

  1. Resist temptation to privilege text over image in conversation with students.

 

 

I can hear a well-intentioned adult telling a teen, “It’s great that you’re reading The Walking Dead, but when are you going to read a real book again?”  Similarly, I cringe a bit when teachers suggest that graphic novels are a good book to read when a student left a book at home.  When we say things like this, we send a message that graphic novels are not considered legitimate forms of literature.

 

Similarly, students may be afraid to pick up a graphic novel because they fear you or others will judge their reading choices as “too easy.”

 

  1.  Read at least two graphic novels this year.

 

If you’re a graphic novel newbie, I’d recommend reading Nimona, American Born Chinese, and March: Book Three, which have all received major literary awards.  If you want a list of recent greats for kids  and teens, I’d recommend the Cybils Awards lists and YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists.

 

  1. Pick up some graphic novels for your classroom library.

If you don’t already have a collection, I encourage you to start one this year!

 

Amy Estersohn is an English teacher in New York, and the best translation of The Illiad is from Robert Fagles.

How to Make 28 Teens Feel Special Immediately and Simultaneously: Or How I Manage Conference Notes

One of the most difficult parts of setting up a workshop was figuring out how to use and organize notes.  Those videos that show elementary school teachers walking around at leisure, seeming to write a paragraph on each child?  Not even possible, not even under the best circumstances.

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Wall space can also be temporary storage for conference notes and for giving you a “status of the class” picture of student progress.

What follows is a step-by-step guide to How I Workshop.

  • Figure out what you, as a teacher, are out to accomplish.  Are you trying to do a quick check in with each student, or are you going to do extensive work with 2-3 kids?  You need both kinds of conferring styles, I’d argue, but you also know which mode you are using, when, and why.
  • Write down 1-2 words in conference, add notes later if you need to.  When I sweep and chat to each student, as I did today, I’ll scribble in a few more notes after class if I need to.  
  • Notice patterns.  I like using my post-it notes to “snapshot” where students as a whole are and where I need to teach something the following day, especially if I find myself repeating myself over and over again in conferences.
  • Diagnose and select students for extended follow up.  If I notice that a student is working on an issue that involves more conversation, I’ll prioritize them for the next day.
  • Save and document information.  I can pop these post-it notes into a plan book.

How do you manage your conference notes?

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  She never met a Post-It Note she didn’t like. 

 

Book Talk in a Blog Post: Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Too often book reviews focus on personal opinions of a book, but as teachers of readers, it’s not all about us.  This post is one of some in an occasional series in which I review  and recommend books for student readers.

 

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart belongs in a middle school teacher’s literature repertoire for “what’s hot.”  My students come in to my classroom familiar with Gemeinhart’s first book, The Honest Truth, so it’s easy to get them reading a book by an author they already know and love.   

 

This book takes a darker turn, as it takes place on a prison island for teen boy detainees.  All of the adults are conveniently killed off, and what results is a Lord of The Flies-like scenario.  Gemeinhart is not the first to write about teens surviving in a world without adults, but he’s one of the first to do it in under 250 pages.  This is the kind of book that’s perfect for a reader who wants a plot-heavy adventure, but isn’t patient enough to read through the 400+ pages of some teen books.

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How to booktalk it:

 

Jonathan has been sentenced to Slabhenge, a prison reform school for teens.  At Slabhenge, the adults get to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast while the prisoners eat oatmeal and a common punishment is kneeling on the Sinner’s Sorrow, a device that’s designed to cut into your knees.   

 

One day, at roll call, lightning strikes a puddle that all of the adults are standing in.  The adults are dead; the prisoners are alive.

 

[Read out loud from page 53 to the break on page 55]

 

Cheering and Steering Readers:

 

Some readers might find the early pages a little slow, particularly because there are a lot of character introductions.  Readers have to wait 50 pages for the adults to die off, which might be frustrating for the reader who wants to get to the “real” story right away.

 

Kids who have background knowledge in escape stories and who can visualize gloomy prison-y settings from movies and TV shows will have a much easier time reading this book than students who don’t have that kind of knowledge.  

 

Encourage students to draw out scenes from this book and to make character lists.  Some characters are important and pronounced;  others pop up only once or twice.

 

Supporting Conference Questions

 

What are some of the problems these characters are facing?  How would you like to see these problems resolved?  (Note: this is a great book for exploring conflict/resolution, as there are some very obvious problems and others that are a little more subtle.)

Do you think this book realistically shows off teen behavior?  Why or why not?

 

What lessons do you think the author wants you to take away from this book?  

 

Where to get it:

 

Scar Island is available through Scholastic Reading Club (https://clubs.scholastic.com/), so if you would like a deeply discounted classroom copy, you can purchase one here.

 

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher, comic book reviewer, former admissions officer, and a recipient of the NCTE/ALAN Gallo Grant.

Writing Heals. Writing Assignments Do Not

Last week I learned a valuable truth:  Even when we think they are not listening, sometimes students get it.

Let me back up.

The week before last I attended a department meeting where our district ELA coordinator shared the National Writing Project’s Case for Good Instruction, information I learned at my National Writing Project Summer Institute in ’09. It details the differences between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught. The discussion around me was interesting and peppered with excuses. I left wondering how teachers would answer these questions if they were on a quiz. How would you?

In your ELA class, do students:

  • have opportunities to create topics that matter to them?
  • understand audience and purpose for papers because they are specifically identified in assignments?
  • see you spending time teaching writing skills and strategies?
  • get writing models, assignments, and strategies to guide each of the different writing tasks?
  • reflect on significant growth — or lack of it — in specific writing skills?
  • hear words of encouragement cheering them on to revise, edit, and improve — and to correct drafts and then resubmit?
  • think about what they write through brainstorming, free writing, role-playing, discussion, or other prewriting activities?
  • celebrate what they, and you, write and make efforts to display and publish it?

I think the biggest excuse we give for leaning on assignments rather than acting on instruction is TIME.

“I can’t let students choose topics because they don’t know what to choose.”

“I can’t teach this novel if it takes so long to write a paper.”

“I can’t do my research paper if I give them time to resubmit. It already takes so long to grade the finished product.”

Maybe you are right. Maybe we have to give up things that we think are best practices for things that are better practices.

Student choice in writing topics is better practice.

Writing instruction with effective models, strategies, time to talk, and time to write are better practices.

Helping students revise, edit, and improve their writing during the writing process with a keen sense of audience and purpose are better practices.

conferringwithjulyssaOur students need time. They need our time. They need our attention and our careful consideration about the things that matter to them. We may have to let some things go in order to give our students what they need.

We learn valuable truths when we do. Last week my students performed (or presented) their poetic arguments. We spent weeks choosing topics, watching video performances, analyzing lyrics for structure and craft, thinking, drafting, talking, revising, studying models, reading each other’s writing, giving feedback, practicing mini-lessons on concrete details and using abstract language to create jaw-dropping imagery.

We were a community of writers, united in a task uniquely our own.

And that is the difference between When Writing is Assigned and When Writing is Taught.

During all that time, I didn’t think Stephanie was listening. She sat at her table, barely talking, sometimes writing, always sad. Then right before Christmas break I sat down and we talked. She showed me her draft, and it scared me. I knew she’d been depressed — her grandmother died at the beginning of the year, and the light left Stephanie’s eyes. I listened to her share her sorrow, her anxiety, the weight of her world , and I gave her my cell phone number with the promise she would call if her boots got too heavy. Thankfully, they didn’t.

Every one of my students who presented their poems sparkled with pride as they faced their classmates, even the ones whose knees knocked in fear. They wrote from their hearts about issues that matter to them personally. They wrote the most important arguments about mistaken perceptionholding grudges, self-hate and self-love, parental control and uncontrolled parents, lying and how we’re programmed to labelBlack Lives Matter and dying white privilege. They wrote about better education and the stress of getting educated, absent fathers, loving fathers, and parentless children and alcoholics who should have put down that drink at 21.

They wrote about sticking together.

And they wrote about self-destruction and depression and monsters. So many of them wore grooves in the floor with the spikes that hold them in place until the sadness drags them down under. They broke my heart.

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Writing to heal is better practice.

Please enjoy Stephanie’s poem. She calls it “Smile.”

 

Many students chose video presentations over live performances. I published several this morning on the 3TT Facebook page. Take a look.

Please share your thoughts on teaching writing. Leave a comment.

 

 

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 higher and harder than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

 

Remembering Why We Become Teachers

Last week, when I met with my new crop of Spring semester students for the first time, I asked them to write one sentence that told me how they’d come to teaching.

Do you know what almost every single student wrote?

“Because I love working with kids.”

It was a reminder, for me:  these young, idealistic, preservice teachers, on the very cusps of their careers…were here because of LOVE.  For children, for learners.

We will spend the next three years with them working on their teaching craft, their pedagogy, their educational philosophy.  We will offer classes in professional inquiry, classroom management, instructional design, content area methods, technology integration, special education, and more.

But we do not offer a class on why most of these students become teachers:  a class on caring for kids.

We cannot offer such a class, because what would we put in the syllabus?  It’s very simple:  just remember to love and care for each of your students, day in and day out.

And that, for me, is the key.  To remember we care for kids.  To keep our students at the center of our classrooms.

I don’t believe anyone can be a good teacher if they merely love their students.  Good teachers must, in addition to caring for their students, have mastery of content, pedagogy, and methods.

67685151d15291cb47b599262f7625a8Whether or not our instructional practices show our care for our students is a good acid test for teaching reading and writing.  Does assigning a book and then creating fifteen “gotcha” pop quizzes make students feel competent and confident as readers?  No.  Not a good practice.  Nor are so many of the worksheets, textbook curricula, or 1990s-designed unit plans I’ve seen employed by some teachers.

But those are boring, you say.  Well, what about something more fun?  When teaching high school English, does assigning a reading project of tracing your hand and making it a turkey on which you list five books you’ve read make students feel competent and confident as readers?  No.  Not a good practice, either.

You’ll notice I’m measuring good teaching and good learning by student competence and confidence, and not by some other measure of “students are having fun,” or “students enjoy themselves.”

There are five core human drives that apply across all societies, all classes, all ethnicities, all ages, all genders.  One of them is the drive to learn.  All students want to learn, to satisfy curiosity, to demonstrate mastery–both to themselves and to others.  Offering them learning opportunities to achieve and demonstrate this mastery show our love and respect for students, not our supreme wisdom or sublime control or smart strategies as teachers.

I’ve been troubled, lately, by how much talk there is in education about “fun” in the classroom, about how “students wouldn’t need grit if we made learning more fun,” and so on.  When we make things too easy on our students (and too hard, or too meaningless), we aren’t showing our love and respect for our students.

Teaching and learning are difficult, complex things.  They can rarely be boiled down to an algorithm, a strategy, or a single method.  Carol Dweck, coiner of the phrase “growth mindset” (the foundational principle behind books I’ve loved like Peter Johnston’s Opening Minds and Choice Words), recently gave an interview in which she expressed heartfelt regret that her work was being turned into an easy and fun strategy for teaching.  This “false growth mindset” essentially says that all you have to do to foster learning is praise kids for effort, whether or not that effort was successful.

When we focus too much on praise, or effort, or one simple strategy that will solve everything!!, we run the risk of teaching the strategy rather than the student.  Amy recently shared with me a piece that it took me about four reads to unpack:  “On Writing Workshop, Cognitive Overload, and Creative Writing.”   This excellent blog post reminded me that when we do something like book clubs, if we spend too much time teaching students how to do book clubs, we aren’t spending enough time getting kids to actually do the work of literacy.

That’s not to say I don’t find value in book clubs, or the multigenre project, or any other lens through which kids might read or write.  There is great value in using a few core strategies, again and again, to help students make sense of what they’re trying to understand.  The key word is a few–so that students keep their focus on literacy, not the strategy or the project or the assignment.  Keep it simple:  quickwrites, book talks, constant revision, constant talk, and a high volume of diverse reading and writing.  Period.

When we keep our classrooms simple, doing more with less and simplifying our instruction to include mostly reading, writing, and talk about reading and writing, we are keeping our care for our students at the forefront of our work.

As we launch into 2017, let’s remember why we became teachers in the first place:  because we care about our students.  Keep that love for learning at the heart of your work, and growth, competence, and confidence will be your rewards.


Shana Karnes lives in West Virginia and teaches sophomore, junior, and senior preservice teachers at West Virginia University.  She finds joy in all things learning, love, and literature as she teaches, mothers, and sings her way through life.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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On In Defense of Read Alouds. Please, do.

At the end of a post I wrote last August called “My Classes are Only 45 Minutes — How Do I Do Workshop?” a reader named Andy left this comment:  I am at kind of a roadblock mentally and could use a push…I teach 8th grade reading in a building that still has both “reading” and “language” classes. While I am slowly transitioning to more of a workshop approach, I am still getting stuck on a few things. For our second semester, we have always read a whole class novel, but I would love to get away from that. Have any of you done read-alouds in your classes? I am beginning to think that maybe a better option would be to have students vote on a novel with a certain theme and do a read aloud and work on certain aspects of reading. My one concern that I can hear being brought up by administration is making sure I have enough assessments and grades…

First of all, I love that Andy asks this question and recognizes his need for “a push” as he wants to do more to engage his students than just another whole class novel. Not that whole class novels are necessarily bad, but those of us who have seen what choice can do in our students’ reading lives know:   if we only choose whole class novels, we lose valuable time developing readers. Giving students a choice as to a book to read aloud might just be a good idea.

I heard Steven Layne, author of In Defense of Read Alouds speak at the Illinois Reading Council Conference this past fall. He quoted the research and the position statements from scholars of various grade levels on the benefits of read alouds:

  • Positive attitudes are fostered towards books.
  • Imagination is exercised.
  • Background knowledge is built.
  • Reading skills are improved and reinforced.
  • A model of prosody and fluency is provided.
  • Reading independence is promoted.
  • Interests in genres are broadened.
  • Cultural sensitivity is increased.
  • Listening skills are improved.
  • Exposure to a variety of text types is provided.
  • Reading maturity develops.
  • Reading happens.

Based on these statements, Andy, what do you have to lose?

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I offer a few suggestions though:  HOW you read aloud to children is as important as WHAT you read aloud. Layne suggests five key elements the teacher-reader must employ as he conveys an awareness of phrasing and word color:  diction, volume, pace, tone, and pitch.

To read aloud effectively, as to engage all listeners, the reader must be a performer.

Of course, what you read aloud matters, too. Offering students several choices and letting them vote is one way to foster trust in your classroom community. Students want to know we value their opinions. I’ve found with my AP English students, when I provide several choices for their Book Clubs, many students will choose to read the books not selected for their independent reading.

I would also suggest that you offer a choice of books that are not too long. I learned a few years ago when I read aloud with my 10th graders that even when they choose the book, attention spans are short. A full-length novel read aloud can cause the same negatives that a whole class novel study can. For this reason, I think it’s important to consider your main objective first and then plan backwards.

If I were doing a read aloud with those same 10th graders this spring, I would plan differently than I did before.

  1. I’d select several books with the same theme I want to build a unit around, and I’d plan to introduce the books by reading aloud from each of them.
  2. I’d think about the goals I can accomplish as we focus on the theme, and I’d think of several summative-type assessments in which students can choose to show they’ve accomplished these goals. Or I’d think about how I might invite students to create their own major assessments.
  3. I’d think about the skills my students need to master, and I’d pair mini-lessons with the ones I know will emerge through the reading. (These can serve as formative assessments.)
  4. I’d think about how I will get my students to apply these skills to their independent reading books, which could all be centered on the same theme (if I planned that well enough). (These can also serve as formative assessments.)

One of my goals with my AP students this spring is to do more read alouds. I’ve learned this fall that many of my students do not understand the different forms and structures stories can take. We are going to use children’s books to help with our understanding. The book Writers ARE Readers by Lester Laminack and Reba M. Wadsworth offers several suggestions on titles that will work with students of all grade levels.

So while I will not be reading aloud a whole novel, I will be performing read alouds and thinking through 1-4 above as I plan this unit.

Best wishes to you, Andy, as you read aloud with your students. I believe this poem by Steven Layne is an important reminder to all of us who work with children:

Read to them
Before the time is gone and stillness fills the room again.
Read to them.

What if it were meant to be that you were the one, the only one,
who could unlock the doors and share the magic with them?
What if others had been daunted by scheduling demands,
district objectives, or one hundred other obstacles?

Read to them
Be confident Charlotte has been able to teach them about friendship,
and Horton about self-worth:
Be sure the Skin Horse has been able to deliver his message.

Read to them
Let them meet Tigger, Homer Price, Aslan, and Corduroy;
Take them to Oz, Prydain, and Camazotz;
Show them a Truffula Tree.

Read to them
Laugh with them at Soup and Rob,
and cry with them when the Queen of Terabithia is forever lost;

Allow the Meeker Family to turn loyalty, injustice, and war
into something much more than a vocabulary lesson.

What if you were the one, the only one, with the chance to do it?
What if this is the critical year for even one child?

Read to them
Before the time, before the chance, is gone.

– Steven L. Layne, from The Reading Teacher Vol 48, No. 2 October 1994

Do any of you have other suggestions for Andy about how he might structure and/or craft assessments for his read aloud? Please leave your ideas in the comments.

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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