Tag Archives: tom newkirk

10 Pedagogical Must-Reads for Workshop Teachers

IMG_0650I met with my new student teacher a few weeks ago, and he asked me to borrow any books that might help him get going on the readers-writers workshop–the “theory” version of Jackie’s starter kit.  He’s been in my classroom before, so he knows the general routine and character of our work, but he wanted to know the ins and outs of how I thought and planned and conceptualized the whole thing.

I sat at my desk and looked at all of the titles I had on hand, remembering how influential reading them for the first time had been.  As a result, it was hard not to just dump my entire professional bookshelf onto a cart for him, but I managed to pick out a few titles that have guided me most adeptly in one aspect or another of my current classroom practice.

  1. Book Love by Penny Kittle – This was the book that helped to solidify my vision of an ideal classroom.  Before I read it, I had already been doing many of the best practices Penny mentions–writer’s notebooks, choice reading, personalized writing.  But I didn’t know how to bring it all together until Book Love.  As such, this is my #1 recommendation for any teacher looking to jump-start their individualized workshop curriculum.
  2. Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle – This book introduced me to the concepts of mentor texts, reading like a writer, and best draft/publication of writing.  I learned about quickwrites, constant revision, writing conferences, and a great deal more of what are now standard routines in my classroom.  This is the book for anyone curious about the big picture of writing instruction.
  3. Finding the Heart of Nonfiction by Georgia Heard – I was raised in the tradition of literature as containing mostly fiction and poetry, but Penny’s books helped me see the great value of nonfiction.  I wanted to know how to integrate it well into my thematic units, and this book helped me do that.  Georgia’s book is full of wisdom about finding the soul of good nonfiction writing and matching it to your students’ needs.
  4. Choice Words by Peter Johnston – This book taught me how to talk to students.  It is my #1 recommendation for anyone looking to address those pesky Speaking and Listening standards in the Common Core–this book teaches you about the delicate, volatile power of a few choice words between you and your students.  I re-read it every year, and it might be the most important book in this stack.
  5. Holding On to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Tom Newkirk – This book is subtitled “Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For,” and Tom Newkirk certainly made me want to engage some of my former teachers in fisticuffs when I finished it.  This text is full of common-sense brilliance that will transform the way you think about why we teach reading and what kinds of texts we teach.
  6. Boy Writers by Ralph Fletcher – Why do my students keep writing about violent gun battles?  Why do they always ask if they can swear in their writing?  What’s up with the complete unwillingness of my boys to be vulnerable?  If you’ve asked yourself these questions…this book is for you.  Ralph writes about everything you ever wondered about boy writers and how to move them forward in their writing.
  7. Readicide by Kelly Gallagher – Schools have been killing reading for many years, Kelly argues, and then presents ways you can stop the slaughter.  He fires away at pop quizzes, assigned chapters, multiple-choice tests, and all the practices that steer our students toward SparkNotes.  Then he reveals ways to get students authentically engaging in literature in a way that doesn’t kill their love of reading.
  8. Falling in Love with Close Reading by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts – After finishing Readicide and wanting to abandon the eight or so whole-class novels I once felt chained to, I wasn’t sure how to teach close reading skills.  This book answered that question for me, and more.  Chris and Kate reveal how to use poems, articles, short stories, and selections from novels to get kids interacting with the beauty and power of language in all kinds of texts.
  9. Reading Ladders by Teri Lesesne – When all of your students have finally found a book they will actually read–then what?  Teri Lesesne taught me how to help students climb a reading ladder of text complexity with this book.  It’s a tough battle to get all kids reading, but it’s even tougher to get them to all challenge themselves once they are.  Reading ladders are the solution to the increasing complexity question–now they’re a consistent part of my instruction.
  10. Revision Decisions by Jeff Anderson and Deborah Dean – After reading the first nine books on this list, I still wasn’t sure where grammar instruction fit in.  I knew to have students read like writers and learn from language and sentence structures that way, but I wasn’t sure how to structure my mini-lessons, until I read this book.  Jeff and Deborah helped me find strong craft study lessons and bring them into the classroom in a way that appealed to students and also benefited them immediately in their writing.

This is by no means an exhaustive list–That Workshop Book by Stephanie Harvey, Read Write Teach by Linda Rief, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and many other integral titles were simply not on my shelf when I gave this stack to Mike.  But these top ten are ones I wouldn’t be the same teacher without.

What other titles are essential to your practice?  Please share in the comments!

Update:  Here are must-read folks that readers have suggested via Twitter and Facebook, as well as in the comments:

  1. Lucy Calkins
  2. Nancie Atwell
  3. Linda Rief
  4. Katie Wood Ray
  5. Donalyn Miller
  6. Don Graves
  7. Donald Murray
  8. Peter Elbow
  9. Ariel Sacks
  10. James Moffett
  11. Louise Rosenblatt

Fart Jokes in 12th Grade

photo 2-2Three minutes into silent reading, someone farted. I have the band-aid colored desk-chair combos, which meant that one vibrating toot was magnified against the metal frame of the guilty student’s seat. The room stayed silent for half-a-minute and then erupted in laughter. The girls quietly chuckled, but there was no way the boys could settle back into their books, so we moved on to our minilesson and called it quits.

My boys can’t get enough of lowbrow humor. Their writer’s notebooks and fictional stories are full of crass humor—farts, sexual innuendo, embarrassing stories, and offensive humor. For years, I chalked up their obsession with these topics to immaturity. I love a good fart joke or sarcastic paper, but I never truly understand the point.

Newkirk argues that humor is a mode of exploration for students, particularly boys. Instead of chastising them for vulgar or lowbrow humor, teachers should capitalize on boys’ love for the weird, gross, and funny. He pointed out that classic literature is full of crass humor, citing Beowulf and Shakespeare as examples. Boys, he noted are inclined to read humorous literature and use these as mentors for their own writing.

Too often though, teachers either don’t understand boys’ humor or they fear that the silliness somehow undermines the assignment. This shouldn’t be the case. Just as we give girls the room to explore emotionally charged pieces about self-confidence or dating, we must also give boys the opportunity to investigate their own questions, which may very well include both humor and violence, as Shana discusses. In an excerpt Newkirk gave us from Boy Writers, author Ralph Fletcher notes that “some of the crass humor in their writing (burping, farting, dirty diapers) tries our patience, but many boys are simply making ‘text-to-text’ connections between their writing and the kind of humor they read in books.” These connections are invaluable when it comes to capturing the attention of our male students.

IMG_2367In turn, we must allow our boys a space to explore humor. Sometimes jokes are just funny, but other times, they soften heavy themes in literature. They open up deeper discussions that are otherwise inaccessible or uncomfortable. As Newkirk writes in Misreading Masculinity, “[Humor] provides a forum for negotiating and sustaining male friendships, and of making overtures to girls. It allows us all to laugh at the peculiarities of our bodies, as we escape, if only briefly, from our embarrassment at the sounds they involuntarily make and the smells they produce” (Newkirk 167). Will students toe the line between inappropriate and appropriate humor? Most likely. Will they take their jokes too far? Potentially. But learning is about testing our surroundings and studying voices to find our own. At the end of the day, I’d much rather my students explore their world through laughter than not, fart jokes and all.

Just Let Them Write: Boys and Autonomy

“Just let them be boys.”

This aphorism about dealing with boys is a long-standing one, but I learned last week in Tom Newkirk’s class on boys and literacy that it’s much easier said than done.

First, after reading a pretty fascinating article in The Atlantic, I realized that modern society doesn’t often let our boys be boys.  The economy, family structures, and workplaces of America have changed drastically in the past twenty years, and the traits and skills that used to make men successful and fulfilled have gone away.

Second, I listened to my fellow teachers discuss their classrooms this week at UNH, and I was struck by the language of control prevalent in teaching narratives:  “I make them;” “I let them;” “I shoot down their ideas;” “They have to;”…these were the words teachers used to describe their students’ activities.

These are phrases of division, of separation, of a differentiation of teacher and student, expert and learner, master and subject.  Having just read Daniel Pink’s Drive, the phrase “The opposite of autonomy is control” has been stuck in my mind.  It seems that even in the academically enlightened setting of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, many teachers still practice a teaching philosophy of control and compliance, rather than one of equity and autonomy.  Further, many of these speakers were women–so this was an issue not just of control, but of furthering the claims of the Atlantic article mentioned above regarding emasculation.

Our class talked about violence a lot, and whether it was acceptable in writing.  Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers taught me that violence in boys’ writing was as natural as the sunrise.  Newkirk addresses this issue as well, defining violence in general as “the intentional infliction of pain…on another,” and specifying that “writing would be a violent act if it caused pain to others…for example, if it caused readers to feel threatened or humiliated.”  Too many teachers in our class had a strict no-kill, no violence, etc. rule about writing topics–the opposite of autonomy.

Most reading and writing boys do doesn’t involve intention to inflict physical pain or harm.  Their topics may be provocative, but most of the time, it’s just boys working out things that are on their minds–huge issues like death, love, violence, and sexuality.  Adults do this all the time too–these are issues many of us haven’t quite worked out, so why should we deny children an opportunity to explore them through writing or other means?

Thanks to reading texts like Boy Writers, Misreading Masculinity, and Peter Johnston’s excellent Choice Words, I feel like I understand and enjoy many themes in my boy students’ writing. In fact, the first time I met my husband was in my freshman English class, where I wrote a story about a serial killer who stole college students’ identities and test scores by ripping off their faces and stitches them over his own. My professor asked me to share it in front of the class and I still recall the nervous giggling that followed my sharing, including Jon’s wide eyes. As a writer, I was just proud of creating a fictional voice so creepy and plausible, but the embarrassment of that experience shamed me to a degree that I’ve shied away from all fictional writing since.

As a teacher, I don’t want to quash a student’s creativity, violent or not. I love my boy writers and respect the sanctity of their writer’s notebooks, in which their fantasy lives can be explored and reflected upon in private. For them to grant me access to those fantasy lives through writing is a sign of respect and trust, and I wouldn’t want to violate that by censoring their thoughts, showing them to administrators, or asking them to share with the class.

But most of all, I want to distinguish between feeling “uncomfortable” and feeling threatened or unsafe.  Hearing me read my serial killer story probably made some of my freshman English students feel uncomfortable, but no one felt scared–I did not threaten anyone in the room, nor did my fictional narrator.  In fact, the end of the story revealed that the killer’s actions were mostly motivated by justice, revenge for his victims’ pervasive academic dishonesty.

Feeling uncomfortable, though, is something I believe is essential to learning.  Disequilibrium is the space in which our worldviews are challenged, where we achieve the Vygotskyan zone of proximal development.  We are confronted with new knowledge and are close enough to it to assimilate it into our existing schema.  An open, unfettered workshop classroom is one place where this kind of development can (and should) occur.  Rules like no violence, no swear words, no sex, no freedom, prohibit the opportunity for disequilibrium–and real social learning–to occur.  We cannot fear our students’ inner minds.  We must acknowledge the distinction between fantasy and reality in books, in writing, and in our kids.

Further, we must value that chasm, and respect our students’ varied and important processing strategies.  Writing these issues out is a way to come to understand them, so we must forsake this antiquated notion of creating control and compliance in classrooms.  Given choice, given autonomy, our students will read and write their ways toward understanding beyond our classes and into their adulthood, as we do.  We are the same as our students, grappling with concepts in writing (like I am here, now) and are no better than or superior to them.  Eliminate authority, cultivate autonomy, and just let them write.

#PoetryChat – Boys & Poetry – Monday, August 3 8ET

IMG_8888This week, the writers of Three Teachers Talk are together in Durham, New Hampshire at the UNH Literacy Institutes.  For five days now, we’ve learned with Penny Kittle and Tom Newkirk about strengthening our practice and our thinking.

Newkirk’s class, centered around his Misreading Masculinity (2001), is focused on boys and literacy.  We’ve read and discussed issues of violence, humor, personality, sexuality, power, and more–all surrounding boy readers and writers.

Join us to continue this conversation on the topic of poetry.  The four of us will be together in Portsmouth, ready to chat on Monday at 8ET.

1. How do you notice your boys responding to poetry in your classroom?

2. Should boys write poetry in an English class?

3. How is poetry uniquely valuable for boys?

4. How do you hook boys into poetry?

5. What are your best poems, poets, or poetry resources to engage your boys?

Poetry Chat August 3

%d bloggers like this: