Tag Archives: student choice

Guest Post: Changing the Reading Culture in Our School One Book at a Time

Both Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher have transformed my thinking as a high school literacy coach.  As a former elementary school teacher, I had always used reading/writing workshop, literature circles, and choice in my classroom.  When I transitioned to being a reading specialist/literacy coach in a high school, I really struggled with the whole class novel approach.  It didn’t work for me with the little ones and I saw more and more of my students struggle with it at the high school level.  Attending workshops offered by Gallagher and Kittle, along with reading everything they have written has given me the reassurance and the research that this approach CAN work in a high school.  Here is what has happened at my high school in just six months:

 

More and more teachers are trying it…

It all starts with one teacher and the support of a department chair.  Last spring after sharing what I learned at Penny Kittle’s Book Love workshop, one teacher decided to drop everything he has been doing in English and take on the “Book Love” approach.  He had so much success getting students to actually read books and improve their writing that two other teachers decided to jump in second term and teach English through choice and mentor texts.  The results were astounding. Word spread at lunch and in our PLCs – students were engaged and excited to come to English class.  Then at the beginning of term three, we had four more teachers jump in.  I am not sure if it was the “positive peer pressure” or hearing about students’ engagement, but little by little teachers have been asking about how to structure their classes in a way to make this work.

 

Teachers are reading more and talking about books…

At times during lunch teachers used to vent about the struggles they had motivating students to complete the reading from the previous evening, or how students bombed the reading check, but now the conversations are about books. We are talking about what we are reading, what our students are reading, what mentor texts we are using, and what changes we see in our classrooms.

Thanks to one teacher’s organization and determination, staff members are swapping rooms once a week and book-talking to students that they don’t teach.  The other day the principal’s secretary came in to our freshman class and book talked The DaVinci Code.  After she left, I saw that several students had added that book to their to-read list.

None of this would even be possible if our teachers weren’t willing to read new books.  Teachers are setting their own reading goals, keeping to-read lists, creating book trailers, etc.  For the past two years we have had “I am Reading” posters outside of our classroom doors, but this is the first year teachers are updating their posters more often and students are noticing the books.

 

Our library is busier than ever before…

We have a beautiful library that has a lot of books that just didn’t get checked out.  This year that has changed.  Last year from August until the end of February, only 4821 books were checked out and 63 books were placed on hold.  This year in the same time period 7333 books have been checked out and 137 books were placed on hold.  That is over 2500 more books being checked out and 74 more books being asked to be held.  Why the change?  Student choice!

Students now come to the library with a purpose.  They have a to-read list (some that are pages long) and if all the books they want are checked out, they can give us a good idea of what they want to read next.  As one of our English teachers told me, “They are thoughtful about what they are looking for if they go to the library.”  He doesn’t worry anymore about students going up to the library trying to “leave class” or “waste time.” Another teacher shared how his students “know their favorite authors and/or recognize titles that have been book-talked.”  They are talking to each other about books and recommending new titles to each other.  They are even checking out 2-3 books at a time.

Our library staff is also trying hard to find ways to get books in our students hands.  Our librarian has shared ARCs with classes and spends time in the classrooms promoting tons of books – the new ones and some of the oldies but goodies that haven’t been checked out in a while. The staff has started creating competitions each month to encourage students to read (Abe Lincoln Award voting, March Madness book bracket challenge, etc) new books.  The library is no longer just a place for students to come and get homework done.

 

Students are reading….

They really are reading and not just the “YA” books that naysayers worry about.  Prior to taking this approach, students came into classes either as students who read all the time (1-2), students who only read assigned books, students who fake read assigned books, and students who didn’t even try fake reading the assigned books.  As one teacher pointed out to me, “As soon as choice became an option, reading, for the vast majority of the students, became fun again!”  They began forming a reading habit that had been lost so long ago.

The issue is no longer trying to get students to read anything. They are reading more consistently than ever before.   Instead of dealing with them reading zero pages in a week, teachers are finding ways to increase student stamina from 50 to 150 pages in a week. That in itself is a huge success.  Students come to class early and start reading their books.  They can even be found reading as they walk down the halls. One boy almost knocked over an upperclassman in his attempt to finish the chapter of his book.  Once a week I co-teach in a freshman English class.  Of those twenty-one students, I think only two students have finished three books.  The rest have read an average of six books in nine weeks (snow days and all). Instead of worrying how to encourage our students to read common texts and pass the reading checks, the challenge is having enough books that interest all of our readers.

Our students ARE challenging themselves – reading more, picking nonfiction, moving up the reading ladder, and trying new genres based on what others have recommended to them. I had one boy in my homeroom start with Hatchet by Gary Paulsen in January and stretched and read Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden for book two.  It was definitely challenging for him, but he didn’t give up on it and was so proud when he finished it.  Other teachers are finding the same thing – students are willingly picking up books from Fitzgerald or Vonnegut, or Hemingway and are able to have real conversations about these books from their perspectives. Students are talking about books with each other AND coming up to teachers and discussing books with them. Because of the location of my office (the library), I tend to do book talks quite often when kids come upstairs and are looking for something new to read.  One of my favorite memories from this winter was a girl who had seen my Goodreads list and made her to-read list off of some of my favorites.  After she finished To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, she asked her teacher if she could come find me and talk with me about it.  She had loved it so much and wanted to thank me for introducing her to that book.These students aren’t afraid of looking smart or nerdy – they are proud.

 

The culture is changing…

Students are now immersed in books wherever they turn.  Between our March Madness Book Bracket challenge, I am Reading posters, Classroom Reading Trees, the Health class independent reading project, random teacher book-talks, etc. students are reading more than ever before.

Melissa Sethna @msethna23 is a high school literacy coach in Mundelein, IL. She has always had a passion for books, technology, and working with adults. In her free time, she loves to read.  She’s a strong believer in book choice and sharing her joy of literature with her family and students. She says, “I wouldn’t be the teacher I am today without my reading heroes: Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, Bob Probst, and Donalyn Miller — who inspire me to take risks, and I try to encourage others to do the same.”

Beyond These Four Walls

Believe it or not, there is an actual term called ‘seat time’.  Yes – states, the national government, school boards, and the rest of ’em, refer to the amount of time a student needs to be learning as “the time they spend in their seats.”  So, we create spaces where students feel safe, comfortable, and willing to risk as we maneuver around this idea of ‘seat time’ because really, who wants to be in a seat for hours upon hours a day?

We move furniture around and engage in Sky Writing (writing on the windows), we use bright colors to liven the spot up and throw rugs on the floor, we use wind chimes and zen gardens to channel our collective inner peace.  I love all of this.  I do.  Because our classrooms are our homes away from home, we invest in them.  For students, sometimes it’s their only home.

Until now.

This year I’m taking the show on the road.  And by show, I obviously mean the Reading Writing Workshop…because I wouldn’t stay home or head out without it.

I’m not alone in this vein of thought.

Amy has gently drenched us with her new found love for teaching poetry; inclusive of strategies, techniques, and student buy-in that emerged for her this summer at Frost Place.  Shana (and her hubby) have taken us to England where we virtually toured historically majestic places where remarkable literaries once stepped foot.  And, Jackie has provided us the opportunity to be audience members through Poetry Out Loud as we envision the poetic brilliance eminating from our New England youth.

Thank you, ladies.  I’d like to return the favor.

IMG_20141219_131929

Welcome to the streets of NYC where students and I take on the challenge of reading throughout the entire day ‘outside of seat time’!

We know, educating our youth is a collective effort – always.  Therefore when my principal afforded our students the opportunity to purchase books of their choosing, he envisioned handing them their individual gift cards and letting them be on their way.  While this is lovely and most definitely appreciated, I needed to be part of the process with our emerging and evolving readers.

This journey needed to be a collective.

IMG_20141219_111942

Our ‘seat time’ for the day!

The goal was to ensure that the day was full of all things literature – from the moment we left the building.  So, as students and I bundled up to head out into the winter cold, we locked the door to Room 382 with metrocards in hand, Writer’s Notebooks in tow, and independent reading books tucked into our bags.  While enroute to the four-story Barnes and Noble located in the heart of Union Square, the NYC subway became our independent reading haven.  Students were aghast at first to know that I was serious about reading, not only on the train…but in public.  Yet, once reality set in, one-by-one books started to surface.  Students started to seep into their pieces and some decided to (unconsciously) ignore the fifteen minute benchmark; they found their time on the subway to be soothed by the lull of everyday noises that so typically distract them.  Today is different.

Today we are readers.  Public readers.

On the hunt for literature

On the hunt for literature

As we arrived at our destination, students were given a lay of the land and had the opportunity to go explore.  I learned a lot in that moment, and in the moments to follow.  I learned that while working with students for five months now, I still do not know all of their literary interests…or that some prefer to read graffitti art books because they are fueled by creativity…or that some have been intrigued by forensics since they started the course about a month ago – and so of course – they want to read up on it…or that graphic novels are still at the core of young men’s desire to read.  As students traveled up and down escalators to find what they were looking for I was proud of their willingness to take on an adventure that had the potential to be wildly overwhelming.

***

Weeks later, back in Room 382 and in true RWW form, we took to our Writer’s Notebooks and students were asked to chronicle a vivid moment in their lives.  What you are about to read took my breath away, literally.

A vivid moment comes to life...

A vivid moment comes to life…

Davon decided to chronicle this moment:

The first time I went to Barnes and Noble it shocked me a lot. I didn’t even know what Barnes and Noble was intill I got there with my teacher and classmates.  When we got there and I realized it was a book store, I was shocked.  I started feeling all types of bad feelings running threw my body.  I was nervous and had butterflys in my stomach.  Seeing all the people at different book shelf’s in there made me feel like I didn’t have no business being there.The fact that everyone looked like they knew what they were doing and looking for, made me just want to stay out of everyone way and get out of there.  

IMG_20141219_140616

Davon in deep thought

 

Davon’s honesty is brave.  And from the looks of it he managed just fine. Better than fine.  He found a piece that would keep him company over the holiday break, that would fuel his imagination, and that would support him in his literacy quest.  A piece he is calling his own.

Using our ‘seat time’ in the most unconventional ways proves that as educators, we know how to support the needs of our students. Sometimes we borrow strategies and ask for guidance, but innately we know what each new group of students needs.  Sometimes it takes a minute to figure it out or customize differentiated plans to make it work.  However, I propose that instead of always rearranging our seating chart or window decals or placement of colored pens…we need to bust out of the four walls in which we learn everyday and let the RWW guide us through the wonders just outside.

In what ways do you foster student learning through the RWW outside of your classroom walls?

All it Takes is a Tutu and Some Focus

iballep002p1

It’s been a month since I realized that my 2014-2015 school year was going to throw me for loops, spins, twists and twirls.  And while I am by no means a self-proclaimed ballerina; I’m smiling, pointing my toes, and pirouetting with the best of ’em.  Because when the music starts the core needs to be strong, the back straight, muscles tight, and breath steady.

As I stretch daily, as all practicing and proficient ballerinas do, I prepare to move in ways that are brand new; ways in which I never thought my body knew how to.  Legs outstretched, arms over extended, and of course…hair tightly wrapped in a bun – not one hair out of place.  Grace and elegance: the aspiration of all ballerinas.

Ballerinas and educators.

And while ballerinas make their every move seem effortless, the reality is that every motion is executed with deep thought and delivered with exact precision.  The bar is set wildly high and only the best of the best can gently thrust their leg onto that bar as fingertips reach for and surpass beautifully pointed toes while bodies align with a diagonally extended leg.

But, what about the ballerinas who approach the bar with a “Hrmph!” and a stubborn knee that won’t align with the rest of the leg and an unmaintained balance as a ‘steady’ foot is anything but?  And that sleek bun?  That bun has come undone and wisps of hair are continually getting caught on eye lashes and tickling cheekbones refusing to cooperate.  And no, you cannot move your hands from First Position for a moment’s reprieve.

Focus.

When we continue to throw on our tutus and ballet slippers and head straight into the studio before the sun has risen from its slumber: We are not giving up.  We are wrapping our bruised and bleeding toes accompanied by “Ouch!” and “Arghh!” but, we are not giving up.  We are placing even more bobby pins in our hair in hopes that today will be the day we are not tempted to twitch out of First Position.  Today, we stretch just a wee bit further in reaching for our little nubby toes.

As we wiggle and wobble…biting our lower lip oblivious to this false stability…we realize that our calloused hands are resting on those little nubs we’ve so desperately been trying to reach for weeks.  Yes, we are now touching our toes.  Wait.  What?  We did it?

I want to show you something.

Amazing isn’t it?  A young man in my Social Justice and Student Voice course was not willing to explore his 35-60 word biography (modeled after Visa Go World commercials) as it applied to his life.  But, he was willing to explore a puzzling injustice that he firmly believes has a feasible solution.  And his questions.  I could most definitely learn how to shape Essential Questions by conversing with this young man.

I’m still aiming for balance.

My knees are still a little bent.  My tutu is sometimes on backwards.  But, there’s hope!  While the majority of students were actively engaged in chronicling a moment in their lives, one student decided he needed to do things his way: focused, dedicated, and with a little pizzazz.  Is that not what the art of ballet truly encompasses?

As I continue to learn the intricacies of this art form, I take pleasure in exposing students to it as well.  We dance together…sometimes in beautiful unison and well, let’s face it, other times as if we’re all petit sauting to a different tune.  That day, this tenacious student decided to wear sneakers to ballet practice.  And, I’m so glad he did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Authentic Work

Last week I had the privilege of visiting several elementary school campuses around my area. It is always neat to go and see what other schools and other districts are doing. This time, all of the campuses I visited were elementary schools, and there is no question that elementary schools love to show student work. One thing that struck me as interesting was the types of work that I saw displayed. Take a look at these two images:

EXHIBIT A

photo 1EXHIBIT Bphoto 2

 

 

What do you notice about the two displays of student work? Any similarities? any differences?

The biggest thing that stuck out to me was that in Exhibit A, all of the student work looked exactly the same. I know you can’t read the text under each elephant, but it too was essentially the same on every page. I will disclose that Exhibit A was done by kindergarteners and Exhibit B was done by second graders, but still. Are you honestly telling me that kindergarteners, if given the opportunity, wouldn’t have come up with a more creative way to demonstrate their understanding about elephants?

Another question I had was what do the state standards say about elephants specifically? Does everyone have to learn about elephants? (The answer to that is NO!) What if a student wanted to learn about monkeys instead? Clearly, in this scenario, students were not given the choice in deciding what they would study.

Now, look at Exhibit B. If you can’t tell, the students are learning about perimeter and area. Some of the students chose to demonstrate their understanding of perimeter and area by marking off their foot print while others wrote out their names in block letters and then calculated the perimeter and area of their names. In this case, students had choice about how they would demonstrate mastery of the skill being taught.

Think about it this way, if the work in the pictures above were a depiction of work in say a high school English classroom, I would equate Exhibit A to the whole class novel where everyone has to read the same book and write the same essay over the same prompt. Whereas, Exhibit B would be reflective of the work that my co-blogger and friend Amy has been writing about in her posts lately as she has empowered her students to read whatever books they want. Amy hasn’t given up the content and the standards she has to teach. She has just allowed the students choice in what they read and how they show their understanding of that content and the skills they have learned.

What about in your own classroom? Is there anything that you ask students to do that looks more like Exhibit A than Exhibit B? How might you change or modify the assignments to allow students a choice on how they want to demonstrate understanding of a particular topic?

Reel Reading: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

ReelReading2I had hoped to save Eleanor and Park to read for myself, but I didn’t get to it before it jumped from my TBR pile beside my desk right into a student’s hands. This student is a voracious reader. I can hardly keep up with her. She read Rainbow Rowell’s first book in two days and loved it so, of course, I had to ask if she wanted to read Fangirl.

She did.

More students will, too.

 

 

 

G/T Teens and Reading — Persuading Awesome

Guest Post by Tess Mueggenborg

This transition has not been easy for me.  It’s taken me several years to get comfortable with the idea of giving students more choice – even free choice – in what they read. Part of it is that I’m a bit of a ‘control freak.’  Part of it is that, as I freely admit, I’m a classical canon sort of gal – and I want to share my passion for classical literature.  But I know that my job is to help my students, not to spread my own personal gospel of literature.  So I’m changing – and the results have been surprisingly, rewardingly positive.

I started this transition last fall, allowing my GT sophomores to choose their books (from a long list … though I also allowed them to bring in other books and convince me that their book was worth reading), and giving them time every week to blog about their reading.  I’ll admit: not every student finished their book.  But not a single student complained – not once – that they didn’t like their book or that I was ‘making’ them read something boring.  So that was a nice change of pace.  And, truly, most students DID read.  And they ALL blogged.  Even if they didn’t read, they still wrote.  And every English teacher knows that just getting them to start writing can be a challenge – even with GT students.

So here are a few excerpts from their blogs, in response to this prompt: ‘Persuade me, Professor Mueggenborg, whether or not I should read your novel.’  Some are funny, some are poignant, some obviously leave much to be desired.  I have not edited the responses, so all mistakes are the students’ own.  It’s a work in progress.

Dillon read Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan

If you have not yet had the absolute pleasure of reading this book you should stop what you are doing right now and go get a copy of it; if you have had that pleasure you should do it anyways. I’ll tell you what I am going to do. I will tell you something so irresistible that you will have to read this novel.There is a dance routine with an ox and ghost children. I refuse to tell you the page it is on so that you must read until you find it. At this point if you haven’t rushed to a library of bookstore to at least find that in the book there is nothing more I can say except that this work of art shows genius in contemporary literature the likes of which I have never witnessed and I am truly grateful for having gotten the opportunity to experience it.

 

Freddie read Transatlantic by Colum McCann

If anyone else is considering reading this book, I strongly recommend it. I loved this book from start to end. I advise, however, not to get discouraged if the first three chapters seem completely incoherent (which they pretty much are). The imagery and similes such as “A chandelier of snot from his nose. The blood backing off his body, his fingers, his brain.” (pg. 31) help the reader imagine what the protagonist was seeing and feeling.

 

Janice read Chanda’s Secrets by Allan Stratton

I absolutely suggest that anyone and everyone should read this book. The book is insightful, interesting, emotional, and thought-provoking. Throughout the entire time I was reading it, I was somehow able to connect to Chanda. Stratton did an amazing job. Honestly, I never thought I would be able to connect so deeply with a girl that has experienced practically the worst of the worst. Her parents both die, her sister died, she was raped, her best friend is a prostitute with AIDS, her neighbors all gossip about one another, and she was forced to leave school in order to make money for her family. All of these things are horrible and I’ve never experienced anything close to the troubles she goes through, yet I can still feel close and bonded with Chanda.

 

Andrea read Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

I have seriously been waiting for this question for as long as I have had this novel. YES. 100% yes! I enjoyed it so much and you will too! Although, if you don’t want to get attached to characters, do not read this novel. If you don’t want to get your heart ripped out of you because of said characters, do not read this novel. If you don’t enjoy reading about death and medical things, do not read this novel. But please, what’s the fun in reading a book if none of those things happen?   

 

Alissa read The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The best part I love about this novel is that it’s actually reality like these things happen in real life, it’s not just make believe. The things that happen in this novel happen to most people in the world and can relate to almost anyone. There are some very important lessons in this novel that led me to caring about my parents and my culture more.

 

Emilio read Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

I believe you should read this novel if you are interested in looking up a bunch of Spanish words or phrases you may not know. This is also a great book for those people who like to try and cook random dishes just try them. You have to be pretty interested in learning about Mexican dishes, even I didn’t know about some.

 

Ellen read In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

I really enjoyed this book. I usually don’t say things like that (especially about a book) because I just don’t really like reading. Like if I were to finish a book, I would always end up telling myself, “what a waste of time”. But this time, it was actually different. When I finished reading this book, I loved it!  It helped me as a woman feel better about myself and it also shows us that if we were to have hope, things will get better in life.

 

Andrew read Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Before reading this book, please consider you mental state. If you have no hallucinations, sleep soundly through the night, and plan to keep yourself that way, do NOT read this book. You will likely lose your mind to the ravenous punctuation devouring demons that reside deep in these pages. They are evil creatures that will eat your quotation marks. Seriously. However, if you are already mad, are not fond of your sanity, or feel that you need something a bit different, it should be relatively safe to read this. I wouldn’t recommend it but it could be done. While this book does have an interesting approach to character development, a somewhat interesting plot, and a cool name, all of that, when calculating how much of your time this is worth, equates to the value of a dead gnat. For one reason. QUOTATION MARKS. I know, I know, I have already complained about this, but it really is that big of a deal to me. Every new paragraph I find myself rereading and checking to make sure that I am on dialogue (or not). Quotation marks serve a legitimate purpose in literature. They show dialogue, sarcasm, and well, as the name implies, quotes. They are NOT for decoration.

 

Matthew read And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

I never read and I personally can’t stand reading. The first time I picked up this book was because I finished all my work in one class and nothing else to do so I started it and from the very first paragraph I read I was hooked. This story broke my heart and then sewed it back together and gave it warmth and then did it all over again. The stories in this book are so heartfelt and they teach so much about the people and lifestyles of other cultures. I would tell anybody to read this book. In a way this book changed the way I felt about everything. It was crazy to think about what some families have to go through. The way that families in America value one another is ridiculous compared to those of the lower classes. I love how the ones that are in poverty and living in lower standards have very good family values. The way that they love and cherish and would do anything for each other is amazing. This book grabbed a hold of someone that cant stand reading and got him to read it and enjoy it which makes that book amazing because otherwise i wouldn’t have read it.

That last selection, from Matthew, is the one that sealed the deal for me on this whole “give them choice” concept.  Awesome.

photo credit Even Hahn

 

“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School.  Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature.  The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg

Student Choice in AP English–It’s Working

Our Compass Shifts 2-1My friend Matt is leaving teaching. I’ll miss him. I started teaching a year before he did, and we’ve kind of grown up as educators together. But with him leaving, I’m thinking–maybe I can get his AP Literature classes. That idea’s sinking in, and we aren’t even done with January.

AP Language has been my sweet spot for a lot of years now, and I don’t want to give it up–I’m a little possessive, but I would love a split with Lang and Lit.

I know, I might be crazy. The prep. The workload. The grading.

Although I have heard of other teachers doing it– just not at my school. We have 6 of AP English teachers, but we all have a split with some other English prep. (Right now I have my own vertical alignment with PreAP English I and II.)

Here’s the thing:  I’ve done readers/writers workshop in AP Language for several years now, and the format fosters confident readers, accomplished writers, AND higher exam scores. Mine jumped 12% the first year I trusted a whole move to workshop and student choice. I know readers/writers workshop will work with AP Lit. I know it.

So, I am planting seeds.

Today I spent hours compiling lists of award-winning books. I should have been planning a presentation I’m doing Monday or grading timed writing essays from Wednesday or tidying my classroom. I couldn’t seem to help myself once I got reading these lists of compelling titles. These are the complex and richly written books I want weighing down my classroom shelves and the minds of my advanced students. I already have a lot. (I made a list of those, too.) I shop thrift stores and bargain bins, and as long as I know the titles I’m looking for, I often strike gold. Gold Pulitzer stickers anyway. I found Tinkers by Paul Harding not too long ago.

Every day my students read during the first 10 minutes of class. I quickly take attendance and then try to talk quietly to a few kids each day about their reading. I use passages from books for mini-lessons– grammar and analysis, and I model what a reader’s life looks like. Not many of my colleagues do this.

I sat in a department meeting with Matt and others this week. We listened to advice on lessons that would get our students prepared for their end-of-course exams, and the topic of independent reading came up. Matt shrugged, defeated, and said, talking about his AP seniors and his on-level sophomores: “My students won’t read. They just won’t.”  Without question, I know why.

He isn’t doing workshop.

But Tess is. She’s doing it with her G/T sophomores and surprising herself with the results. Her guest post will run on Monday.

We have to get students reading. We want to get them reading, don’t we? If we want, not just to develop critical readers so they can pass a test, but if we really want to instill empathy and compassion and knowledge into kids’ heads and hearts, we have to get them reading. Allowing them free choice, drowning them in book choices, and giving them time–time to read, well, that’s what’s making mine into READERS.

Gifted and Talented Teacher Leaps off Cliff of Faith and Experimentation

Guest post by Tess Mueggenborg

Make no mistake about it: I’m a classical canon gal.  Always have been, always will be.  And when I say “classical,” I also mean “really old” – few things written after 1650 hold much interest for me.  Favorite work of literature? Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Favorite time period of literature? Early Roman Empire (Ovid & Virgil).  Favorite English Lit class from my undergrad days? Greek Tragedy.

But as much as I love the canon – and I’ve had surprising success with teaching the canon in the past – I’m also a pragmatist.  I know that what I love isn’t always what’s best for my students, and their learning should take priority over my passions (I know … radical idea, right?).  I also acknowledge that the real world in which I live and work is far from my ideal.  Would I like to devote all of my class time to discussing Beowulf and Canterbury Tales?  Of course.  But can I realistically get my students to read and engage with these texts, and develop a passion for them?  Not likely.  Some, of course, will – and I’m happy to guide them on their own paths of classical literature studies.  But I bet (I hope) that those students will wind up as English Majors, and they’ll get their fill of such works in college.  I must work with the students I have, not the students I wish I had.  And the students I have are awesome: bright, curious, hungry for meaningful learning and wisdom.  So this classical pragmatist has started to break her own mold.  Here’s how …

I teach a class known as World Experience; it’s for Gifted and Talented sophomore students, and it combines AP World History with literature.  The history drives the course – it sets the pace, scope, and sequence for the year.  It’s then pretty easy to match up literature with the corresponding time periods.  leap off cliffAncient River Valley civilizations at the start of the year? We read Gilgamesh and Horus the Hawk.  Classical civilizations come next – that mean Antigone and a few selections from Metamorphoses.  Next up is the Medieval period … and this has always been a struggle.  I love Medieval lit, I can read Middle English, and I can wax poetic on the virtues and merits of The Song of Roland and Sir Gawain and the Green Night ad nauseum.  And while the students usually enjoy these stories, they don’t usually get much out of this unit in terms of literature.  They don’t learn much about author’s craft, they can’t do much literary analysis, and they become so frustrated with the archaic language of the text that most of them give up … and it takes me another six weeks to pull them back into literature.  So this year, I’ve scrapped all this, and leapt off a cliff of faith and experimentation.  The results have been pleasantly surprising.

Our district head of English Language Arts was kind enough to buy $600 of books for my classroom library.  I got to choose every one of them: all award-winners (or by award-winning authors), all world literature, all contemporary, all high-level.  No softballs in this classroom library – these are, after all, GT students.  Each student got to pick a book (this was a time-consuming and sometimes contentious process, but it certainly got every student interested in the books and invested in their choice).  Once a week, they’ve been blogging about their novel, based on someone generic questions posed by me.  Some of the questions are just opinion (Do you like this book so far? Why or why not?); some of the questions are analytical (Who is the main protagonist of your novel? What problems do they encounter in the course of the novel? How do you predict they will resolve these problems … or not?); some relate back to the history half of the course (In what ways does your novel relate to the history we’ve studied so far this year?).  Some responses have been good.  Some have been profound, moving, passionate, and elegant.  None have been outright bad, and none have been missing.  That’s right: NONE have been missing.  Every student has been reading and blogging.  Even the student who earned a grade of 9 (yes, a single-digit 9) for the first 9-weeks is reading and blogging about her novel.  I’m calling this experiment a success.

To be fair, I should say: this hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been without challenges.  But they’re good challenges, and not insurmountable.  Some students read their novels in a week – and then wanted to borrow another book.  YES!  Many students didn’t devote enough time to reading their novel, and they’ve fallen behind.  But they haven’t given up: they’re still reading.  I haven’t had any complaints of “this book is boring,” though I’ve had many complaints of “this book is so sad/depressing/pessimistic/disheartening.”  Which has led to some great discussions about the point of literature, analysis of tone, and some hefty doses of maturation (I’m pretty sure the girl who read The Kite Runner in a weekend has been inwardly weeping for two weeks now).

We’re wrapping up this unit, and thus this great experiment.  And I think it bears repeating: I’m calling this experiment a success.  Enough of a success that I’ll be spending this weekend revamping the next unit (which starts Monday) to include more student choice and incorporate more of these novels, though in a slightly different fashion.  Stay tuned.

Am I still a classical canon gal? Heck yes. Always have been, always will be.  But my students don’t need to be classical canon fans – they just need to be readers, eager to engage with the world and its complexities.  I think they’re well on their way.

“Professor” Tess Mueggenborg teaches English (and anything else with which her students need help) at RL Turner High School.  Her academic passions lie in comparative language and literature.  The Professor lives in Dallas with her husband, Jeff. Tess’ on Twitter @profmueggenborg

%d bloggers like this: