Practicing What I Preach

I just participated in an invigorating NCTE twitter chat http://www.ncte.org/community/nctechat about the Teacher as Writer. It was very thought provoking and I wanted to get my feelings down on paper while they were still fresh.

 I believe in the power of the right mindset in achieving one’s goals. I encourage my students to take risks and I don’t penalize them for mistakes. I want them to practice in a fun, low-stakes environment in order to improve their reading and writing skills. I have designed the class so that they share their work with others often. I often tell them to “write what you know.” I remind them that they all have a story to share that others want to hear. Why, then, it is so difficult for me to internalize my own advice? Why do I find the act of writing for others so intimidating when I expect my students to do so on a daily basis?

 I have had a varied and rewarding teaching career and have always shared what I have learned with others and learned from them in return. I took on leadership roles at school and have taught teacher candidates at Eastern Michigan University. I’ve enjoyed these experiences, but always had a desire to write a book on student motivation and engagement. However, I’ve never been able to follow through on this and put the ideas on paper. A large part of this is my own insecurity about sharing my ideas with a larger audience. I am very sensitive and am afraid I would respond badly to real or perceived negative criticism. I guarantee several of my students can relate and I have empathy for them.

 I met several members of the Nerdy Book Club http://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com at the Michigan Reading Association conference in March of this year. After experiencing their passion and enthusiasm for literacy, I was inspired to start blogging my own ideas about teaching and learning, but was still a bit terrified of taking the leap. But I knew I must be that role model for my students, so I started writing.

On the day my first blog post went live, I was petrified. I was opening up my heart and soul in addition to my ideas and I didn’t know how I would be received. I was writing what I knew and wanted to tell my story. I truly didn’t care if anyone read the posts, but I wanted them to be kind in their feedback if they did. I have now posted several entries and can’t believe that people have actually read them and even commented. The response has been more than I expected and very positive. Even though it is a little bit scary, it is a bit of a thrill to know that something I have written may be meaningful or helpful to a fellow educator. Plus, I truly enjoy the forced reflection of the entire process. This is the feeling I want for my students so I must keep this in mind as I conference with them about their writing.

 Once again, I am reminded that teaching affords me immense power and I must use this power to uplift and not destroy. I am sure many of my students are also frightened of having an outsider (even if it is just the teacher and classmates) read their writing. They may not feel they have a valuable story to tell. They may be afraid that it is not worth writing if it is not perfect. I understand how that feels and can relate. My role as their instructor is to be their coach as well as their cheerleader. I need to be mindful of the words I choose when giving feedback. If I do it right, they may experience the same joy in writing as I do now.

I guess my next challenge is to actually write that book.

 

Short Stories to use with Notice and Note Signposts: Part 3

Because I had many twitter friends ask for this, I am posting a portion of a transcript I sent to a friend about the short stories I used to practice finding the Signposts in Notice and Note as promised.

I teach at an all-girls school so many of the stories have a female protagonist. Because of this, I am giving you lists of short stories that I found on other websites as well. I used many of them when I taught at a co-ed public school.

I love stories by O’Henry, Saki, and Guy de Maupassant. I also enjoy using sci-fi short stories with middle schoolers.

Even though I only teach girls now, I could see the signposts being a huge benefit to teaching boys as well because they are so much more concrete. Also, any short story has signposts in it, so find the stories you like the best to use in class.

 Here is how I organized the first several weeks of school:

  • I reviewed the literary elements of Setting, Plot, Characterization, Conflict, and Theme.
  • We applied these literary elements to our study of the summer reading novel, Surviving the Applewhites.
  • Then, I introduced the signposts one at a time using a story that we walked through together. I read it aloud and they identified signposts as I read then we discussed. I used Beers and Probt’s lesson for Thank You Ma’am as my guide. For your reference, I have listed this story as the first one underneath the signpost.
  • Then, I gave them a story in which to identify signposts independently. You will see that the same story is listed in a couple of different categories. In that case, it is because I had them identity both of those signposts in the story.
  • We also reviewed all of the literary elements in the short stories.
  • You will also see that there are less stories under each category as we progressed. This is because the girls were understanding the signposts so well that they said it felt redundant to do the identification twice so I bumped it down.
  • Finally, I showed the Pixar shorts and they found signposts, plus we focused on the literary elements I specified in each one. I did this for a parent visiting day lesson and it was a big hit.
  • Now, we are reading a novel and as they read they are identifying the signposts. I printed up bookmarks for them with the signposts on them that I found on Teachers Pay Teachers. They actually cheered when I handed them out and they say it really helps.

 

The stories I used:

(NOTE: we have copies of a book by Jamestown Publishers called Best Short Stories: Introductory Level that included many of these stories. I have put an asterisk next to those titles. Many of them are available online as well.)

Contrast and Contradictions:

Thank You Ma’am by Langston Hughes

* Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

 A-Ha Moment:

*The Richer, The Poorer by Dorothy West

All-American Slurp by Lensey Namioka

Charles by Shirley Jackson

The Landlady by Roald Dahl (we read later for Halloween, but they found signposts)

Tough Questions:

*President Cleveland, Where Are You? by Robert Cormier

Words From the Wiser:

*Tuesday of the Other June by Norma Fox Mazer

 Again and Again:

Charles by Shirley Jackson

Eleven by Sandra Cisneros

 

All Signposts and Literary Elements: (I used this as a assessment of the signposts. I might not do that again next year. I will probably make it a group activity because the story confused a few of them.)

*Lob’s Girl by Joan Aiken

Great Short Stories recommended by other websites:

http://www.weareteachers.com/community/blogs/weareteachersbookclub/book-club/2013/05/15/24-short-stories-for-middle-schoolers

http://www.pinterest.com/glanceatnance/teach-short-stories/

http://edhelper.com/short_stories/short_stories.htm

I would LOVE it if any of you would add your titles to this list in the comments. Thanks so much. 

Inspired by the Nerdy Book Club—Again

Last night I returned from a very invigorating “un-conference” called Nerd Camp Michigan. My brain is full and I am, once again, inspired by the people I have met through the Nerdy Book Club.

At lunch on the second day of Nerd Camp, I asked Donalyn Miller and Laura Komos if I could sit in one of the empty seats by them. Donalyn said sure, but told me that there were also a couple of teachers who wanted to sit by her to ask her some questions so we needed to save seats. My first thought was, “How cool is this famous author to give up her free time to, essentially, work?” My second thought was, “Woo hoo—a free consultation with Donlayn that I can eavesdrop on.” I knew her advice would be valuable, so I sat down.

The teachers asked Donlayn their questions and she graciously helped them with their dilemmas and assured us all that we were doing the right things for students. We all agreed that, in the end, we must perform to the best of our abilities given our individual parameters. This is one thing I have definitely learned in my teaching career—all we can control is our own classroom.

Besides this great lunch conversation, I sat in several Nerd Camp sessions delivered by phenomenal educators (and even horned in a bit on facilitating a session given by my friend, Kevin English. Thank you, Kevin.). In these invigorating sessions, it was easy to set goals for future learning. For example, I had not realized the full capabilities of Padlet and Evernote. I resolved to learn more and practice with these tools. My only regret at Nerd Camp was that I chickened out and didn’t volunteer to lead my own session as I had planned (which, coincidentally, was the exact topic that Kevin had proposed which is why I asked him if I could help in his session). I kind of beat myself up over that. Regrets stink.

I have an extremely rewarding career and love every minute of what I do. I’ve taught for over 20 years at all grade levels from first grade to university pre-service teachers. I have been a teacher leader and delivered many presentations to groups of teachers, student-teachers, and administrators. I know that I’ve put in over 10,000 hours, yet there remains this nagging doubt that I am not yet an expert. I always feel there is something I don’t know and can’t ever believe it when people want to hear what I have to say. Perhaps this is because I haven’t yet developed the “Goldilocks” classroom I wrote about previously. I feel that an expert would have had this figured out by now. Also, I have never quite managed to finish writing the teaching book I’ve wanted to do for years so I don’t feel I have credibility. It is for these reasons that I was too insecure to volunteer to lead a Nerd Camp session. I know I have a lot of knowledge and experience, but I don’t know that I will ever feel that I am talented enough to be one of “those” teachers who naturally inspire others like Donalyn Miller and the rest of the Nerdy Book Club. But in the true spirit of an Ed Camp, I am inspired to keep a growth mindset. I want to share what I have learned with others, but, apart from adjunct professor work, I don’t yet know the forum for doing so and this blog is my first step. I don’t feel that I’m an expert—YET—but I will get there. I’ll figure it out. I will keep blogging and tweeting and working on that book. One thing’s for sure–I will definitely sign up to run a Nerd Camp session next year. Thank you for the inspiration Nerdy Book club. I’ll see you on July 6 & 7, 2015!

Thoughts on Avoiding Readicide of Whole Class Novels

At some point, I will formulate this into a coherent format, but these are thoughts running through my head for a future blog post.

How To Avoid Readicide When Teaching Whole-Class Novels

• My teaching changed when I read Readicide by Kelly Gallagher and The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.

• Book Whisperer: (127) “There needs to be a balance between picking a book apart to examine its insides and experiencing the totality of what a book offers.”

• Whole Novels for Whole Class: (20) “Structure a literature program in a way that protects the reader’s experience of the story.”

• Readicide: One of the four causes of Readicide is over teaching a book.

• Readicide: (109) “My students are always reading two books at a time: one that requires the teacher to be in the room, and one that is a high-interest, fun read.”

• Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis: Goal of reading is to construct meaning.

• Penny Kittle: (19) “The study of literature is half the job; leading students to satisfying and challenging reading lives is the other, and we haven’t paid enough attention to it.”

• Penny Kittle: (21) Curriculum is presented as either “a rigorous study of the classics” or “fun reading of what’s easy. . . I am suggesting that teaching English can’t be one or the other; it has to be both.”

• Cris Tovani: Whoever is doing the reading/writing/speaking is doing the learning.

• Me: I believe in teaching the READER, not the READING.

• Me: I use the reading of class novels as a community building and learning experience and not as a means to formally assess and grade students.

• Me: Use a balanced approach. Choice and whole class are important.
My Suggestions:

1. Do not teach a book a chapter at a time. We read the book in chunks and I give a reading calendar at the beginning.

2. Provide “framing” (context, supplemental materials, and topic floods) to eliminate a barrier to understanding.

3. Structure around a theme (meets CCSS: “two or more texts address similar themes).

4. Find a literacy focus and learning target for reading. Students can’t hit a bull’s-eye if they don’t know the target.
a. I use Notice and Note
b. Ariel Sacks: Literal, Inferential, Critical
c. Jeffrey Wilhelm: Fresh Takes on Literary Elements
d. Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts: Lens, Patterns, Understanding

5. Honor their thoughts. There is no one right answer.

6. Gradually release responsibility as the novel goes on and as the year goes on. I do, We do, You do, You do together, You do alone.

7. Give writing assignments and active experiences that tie to the book and complement the text. BIBITT and Creative. Use novel as mentor text to read like a writer.

8. Don’t choose a book that is too far above their reading level. Provide supports for students who struggle and options for students who fly.

9. Quit grading every little thing! However, do plenty of formative assessments along the way.
a. Mosaic of Thought
b. I Read It, but I Don’t Get It
c. So What Do They Really Know?
d. Making Thinking Visible
e. Notice and Note
f. Stephanie Harvey and Anne Gouvidis
g. Harvey Daniels and Stephanie Harvey
h. Dick Allington

How I Use Notice and Note in Class (part 2)

I am not going to summarize Notice and Note or the Signposts here, but I will tell you a little about how I used them this year in class.

First, I thought about different approaches and decided to teach the Signposts one at a time. My classes are only 45 minutes long so each initial Signpost story lesson took one period and the rest of the lessons were on subsequent days. I chose a short story that I thought perfectly illustrated each Signpost. (One example in the book is “Thank You Ma’am” by Langston Hughes to show Contrast and Contradiction, so I used it first.) I walked them through the story, modeling my thinking and stopping for reflection. We discussed the essential question that accompanies each Signpost and how it was revealed through what they found. The next day, I gave the students copies of a different story and had them read through and highlight the Signpost. They discussed what they marked in small groups and then shared aloud what they had found and, most importantly, what they thought it meant.

After we had covered all six Signposts, (which took about two weeks), I moved on to applying finding Signposts in Pixar shorts and popular movies/TV which was a big hit. The ultimate goal was that they could find relevant Signposts in the class novel we were about to read—which, coincidentally, was Walk Two Moons. (I had chosen the novel at the end of the prior year and it is covered extensively in Notice and Note.)

The first thing I did was to hand out a cardstock bookmark I had made with all of the Signposts listed (and the students actually clapped because they were so excited). I divided the novel into chunks, and after each chunk there was a class discussion. For the first discussion, I merely asked students, “What did you notice?” and volunteers shared what they had found with the whole class. Students were giving each other positive feedback and actually enjoying annotating. As we progressed through the novel, I incorporated this and many other ways for students to show what insight they had gained from the Signposts they had found besides whole class discussion. NOTE: I generally only spend about 3 weeks teaching a novel so these activities took place every few days over a few weeks’ time with writing workshop in between.

With the two subsequent novels we read, I instructed them to concentrate on one or two specific signposts only. For example, when we read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I asked them to focus on finding examples of “Words from the Wiser” because I knew that this would lead them to the themes of that particular novel. I was pleasantly surprised when they asked if they could annotate other Signposts and also highlight more than I was asking (such as foreshadowing—they LOVED to find foreshadowing for some reason) which I delightedly approved.

Some of the feedback I got from students at the end of the each novel and at the end of the year validated my choice to use the Notice and Note Signposts in my classroom. Many students said they felt smarter using the Signposts because they could contribute more to discussions. It was not uncommon for them to give each other praise for finding something “profound” or “insightful” in the text. One student told me she had always read every book that a teacher assigned, but she had never truly “gotten into” and “understood” a book as well before. This is but some of the anecdotal evidence that affirms my love of Notice and Note as a classroom strategy for close reading with the middle school students.

 

 

 

Why I Love Notice and Note (part 1)

I have always taught at schools where the English curriculum incorporates reading of novels as a whole class. This post is not to debate the relative merits or deficits of teaching a whole class novel, but rather to show how Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst [http://www.heinemann.com/products/E04693.aspx] made the task of teaching a class text even more enjoyable than it had been in the past.

Not surprisingly, I enjoyed English classes as a kid and loved that we read novels together. I may never have chosen to read The Great Gatsby or The Canterbury Tales were they not required class reading and I ended up loving both of them. However, I always felt there was some secret code or language that my teachers could understand but which I didn’t speak. They were able to discuss the finer points of plot, characterization, symbolism, and theme, yet I often felt that I was not understanding the books because I had not always found these same things myself. True, I made copious margin notes writing down what the teacher had said and scored well on tests and essays as a result, but I usually beat myself up for not having an a-ha moment about a piece of text until the teacher pointed something out and it seemed so obvious. (Wait, Eckleburg’s eyes are not just there because they’re creepy? Oh, duh!)

Fast forward many years to 2008 when I became an English teacher. When I made the switch from special education, I was determined never to put a child in the position of feeling stupid for not seeing what they I so “obviously” saw. (I also swore never to over teach a novel and kill them with vocabulary and worksheets—but all of that is in a previous post.) As such, I read everything I could on the subject. How fortunate for me that How to Read Novels Like a Professor by Thomas Foster, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller [Donlayn's blog: http://bookwhisperer.com] and Readicide by Kelly Gallagher [from Kelly's blog: http://kellygallagher.org/books_dvds/books_dvds.html] came out at about the same time I made the switch to teaching English. They gave me permission from an expert to do what I wanted to do in class—to help students understand what they read, to promote a lifelong love of reading, and to avoid killing that love when teaching novels.

Based on what I loved in Readicide, I began teaching novels in a student-centered format (similar to what Ariel Sacks recently wrote about in Whole Novels for the Whole Class). She and I differ slightly in approach, but the gist is the same. I want kids to read and talk about the books and don’t want to interrupt the flow of their learning with useless activities. Teaching novels this way was actually more work for me because I had to be an active facilitator and mentally present in each and every class discussion because there were no worksheets to hide behind. It was worth it, though. I found that as I gradually released the responsibility, the students soared. This approach was very successful and the students generally asked me when we would be reading our next novel because they enjoyed the experience so much.

Imagine my delight when I attended a reading conference last summer and saw the genius team of Beers and Probst present on their wonderful book, Notice and Note, that made it easier for me to release responsibility even sooner and enable instruction to be even more student-centered than before. To me, it was a middle-school student friendly version of How to Read Novels Like a Professor that I had enjoyed so much. It was a simple blueprint for helping students find the “important” parts of novels they read without needing them pointed out by a teacher. It gave them the tools they needed to engage in a text and make sense out of what they read. My next post will focus on how I use the Notice and Note Signposts in my class.

Fun with Argumentative Writing

Yesterday, I finally had the opportunity to see Kelly Gallagher present in person. (*pausing for fangirl memory*) I’ve practically memorized his books and apply many of his ideas on a daily basis. After hearing him speak about teaching argumentative writing to adolescents, I was not only validated in my own beliefs and practices, but I was inspired to share some of the most engaging writing activities I use. (By the way, if you haven’t checked out his website, you must–http://kellygallagher.org) Even though it has been the expected result of writing instruction where I’ve taught, there’s much more to argumentative writing than the 5-paragraph essay. There are also more topics to argue about than whether a school should adopt school uniforms. (In fact, that topic has been so overdone that the students groan if the subject is even mentioned.) While the ultimate goal is to have students write a coherent, logical, organized argumentative essay, the steps in getting them to adequately defend an opinion do not have to be mind-numbingly boring for either the students or the teacher.

I like to build up to a full-blown essay with several smaller practice writing activities. Kelly Gallagher does this too. In his wonderful book, Write Like This, he shares many of the low-stakes writing assignments he uses to practice with his students. I’ve used several of them in my classroom. For example, I enjoy playing “Would You Rather” with the entire class as a verbal and kinesthetic activity in which they move to a side of the room based on their choice and share aloud. My students also respond well to arguing in favor of a specific consumer or entertainment product over another. He also uses mentor texts extensively (as do I) to allow students to “read like a writer.”

Here are some other writing activities I do in class:

1)   It’s fun to read the picture book I Wanna Iguana and analyze the techniques Alex used to persuade his parents to buy him an iguana.

2)   I teach the meaning of the rhetorical devices Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Then, I teach them hand signals corresponding to each word (hand up as in an oath, hand on heart, and hand to head, respectively) and which Wizard of Oz corresponds to each term as well (Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow, respectively). We then analyze several ads for these techniques and do a word sort into these categories. They attempt to use all three techniques in their writing.

3)   As a class, we write a letter to the foundation of a fictional recently deceased billionaire asking for a donation to an organization the class has determined is worthy of the funds. We must use Ethos, Pathos, and Logos in our request.

4)   We do a group activity I call “Selling Ice To An Eskimo.” Each group draws one card from each of two piles. In the first pile is a useless junk item such as ½ roll of masking tape, a dead houseplant, or a pack of pink construction paper. In the second pile is a random fictional group such as The Elvis Impersonator Club of Omaha, The Retired Hamster Trainer Association of America, or The Motorcycle Doctors of the U.S. As a group, they determine why that group would want that object, then design and present an ad targeted to them. They love this and it cracks me up.

5)   “Dear Customer Service” is a writing activity I designed where each student draws one card from each of four piles. The four piles contain cards with the following:

  1. an everyday object (such as a hoodie, a binder, or a backpack),
  2. the problem with the object (such as it is lumpy, it is leaking green fluid, or it smells like it’s burning),
  3. what happened to them as a result (such as it gave them an electric shock, made their cat angry, or made their foot itch), and
  4. what they want in restitution from the company (such as rent out a movie theater for a private showing, buy them a plane ticket to Hawaii, or get them a part on a reality TV show).

Their task is to determine the backstory surrounding these cards and write a letter of complaint to company demanding restitution and satisfaction. These are hysterical!

6)   In Barry Lane and Gretchen Bernabei’s great book, Why We Must Run With Scissors, they infuse fun into argumentative writing. One of my favorite ideas from the book is an activity the authors call “The Devil’s Advocate.” The students argue in favor of a ridiculous rule, and the list of rules provided is hilarious. It includes everything from “Citizens must marry the first boy/girl they kiss,” to “All cosmetics will become illegal,” to “Walking will require a license.” The kids have a fun time trying to come up with rational reasons to defend these outlandish rules. (This is really a fun book–http://www.discover-writing.com)

I hope you enjoy these and I would love to hear your ideas as well.