Finding the Gift in Every Student

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and saw a slide about “What Doesn’t Motivate?” posted from a presentation given by Rick Wormeli. The last bullet point on the slide struck a chord: “Students spending the majority of their day working on their weak areas, being reminded of their deficiencies.” As an educational psychologist and former special education teacher, this is a practice I have fought against my entire career. With the added emphasis on standardized testing, this soul-crushing practice has become even more common. Is it any wonder that many of these students are depressed and disenfranchised? Does this practice anger anyone else as much as it does me? There has to be a better way. (http://www.amle.org/BrowsebyTopic/WhatsNew/WNDet/TabId/270/ArtMID/888/ArticleID/372/Perseverance-and-Grit.aspx)

There are no easy solutions to providing needed support to struggling students while not simultaneously killing their love of learning, but there are better ones. Educational researchers have extensively studied how students learn best. Unfortunately, many of the best techniques we know of are now primarily used with students identified as gifted. I was enrolled in these gifted programs in school and remember that time as being highly motivating and enjoyable. Herein lies my frustration. If these are the best teaching practices we know of, why are they not used with all of our students?

 

I am known to say that I teach all of my students as they are gifted with learning differences. While this is meant to be somewhat facetious, it is based in my truth. I am a constructivist at heart and believe that all students can be successful in a classroom designed with them in mind. To that end, I’ve always incorporated techniques recommended for teaching gifted learners. In an article on teaching gifted children written by Carol Ann Tomlinson in 1997, she states, “What it takes to teach gifted learners well is actually a little common sense. It begins with the premise that each child should come to school to stretch and grow daily. It includes the expectation that the measure of progress and growth is competition with oneself rather than competition against others. It resides in the notion that educators understand key concepts, principles and skills of subject domains, and present those in ways that cause highly able students to wonder and grasp, and extend their reach. And it envisions schooling as an escalator on which students continually progress, rather than a series of stairs, with landings on which advanced learners consistently wait.” In short—a student-centered classroom that addresses individual needs. Why is this not what we want and demand for all students?

This leads me closer to solving the issue I posed in previous posts–developing a “just right” Goldilocks class for my students and myself. I’m going to continue to develop and provide more Project Based Learning and Genius Hour experiences. This will not only address the standards I want to teach, but it will do so in the manner I want to teach. Since I believe all of my students possess their own gifts and that all of them need motivating learning experiences, I’m looking forward to exploring how to make all the puzzle pieces fit.

Is the Goldilocks English class a fairy tale?

In my never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything I wish to teach in the way that I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve done in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?

Here’s my problem. I am addicted to professional literature about teaching. I also attempt to go to at least one literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from Twitter chats. Trouble is that these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried—all of which produced great results.

Among the things I love to do with my students are:
• genius hour
• PBL
• reading workshop
• writing workshop
• book clubs
• Article of the Week
• independent, choice reading
• whole-class novel study
• student blogging
• book talks
• read alouds
• author visits
• iPad apps
• and many more

The problem is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in such a short amount of time, but I don’t know what to eliminate. Everything adds value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are non-negotiable. I know that none of us ever have enough time, but I am hoping someone else has determined a magic way to fit all of the pieces into the puzzle and what you’ve had to let go.

I’ve used two different schedules. One is to alternate a reading-focused unit (3 weeks) with a writing-focused unit (2 weeks). I have also alternated days of the week between reading and writing Monday through Thursday and “something fun Fridays” which involve critical thinking and skill development. Penny Kittle gave me the great advice to spread out the workshops to two days. This would be a great solution for my reading and writing workshop, but I need to figure out how to incorporate some of the other wonderful ideas out there. It’s overwhelming. If anyone has this solved, I am all ears. A great group from my twitter PLN put together a Google doc to share ideas, but would love to hear more.

Thanks. I look forward to learning with you.

Channeling Goldilocks: Attempting to get it “just right”

After reading Erica Beaton’s terrific 4.15.14 blog post “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One (b10lovesbooks.wordpress.com) on “whether novels should be shared as a whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth,” I realized that this is a decision frustrating many English teachers. Although most teachers I know come down on one side or the other, I believe in a balanced approach because I find value in both. I’m looking forward to her next post where she will continue the conversation. In the interim, I want to share how I’ve applied some of what I’ve read regarding teaching whole-class novels.

Like many secondary English teachers, I began teaching novels in the same way I was taught. I assigned a chapter or two at a time with vocabulary words to define, chapter questions to answer, and a summative comprehension test. The problem was that I hated every minute of teaching that way and the kids were bored to tears. Sure, I loved English classes when I was a kid because I knew this was how the game was played and I played it well. I distinctly remember enjoying reading “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Flowers for Algernon”, The Great Gatsby, The Fountainhead, etc., but I must have somehow mentally blocked how mind numbing it surely was to complete all of the accompanying busy work. What I do remember enjoying somewhat was the teacher guiding us toward his or her interpretation of the work and the rare opportunities for class discussion. I wanted to capitalize on student discussion and discovery in my classroom. I was already making movement toward eliminating rote work when the right book appeared at the right time. Thank goodness for Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide for giving me research-based permission to do what I’d always felt was right for students.

In Chapter 4 of Readicide, Gallagher discusses finding the “sweet spot” of instruction by achieving the perfect balance between the overteaching and underteaching of books. For me, teaching a whole-class novel in a way that provides depth of thought, development of literacy skills, and student engagement is the quest for my sweet spot. Like Goldilocks, I am searching for what feels “just right.” I am constantly refining my methods, and have come up with some techniques that are working for me thus far. Not only are my students enjoying reading a novel as a class, they are able to meet and exceed the standards required. It’s not “just right” yet, but I’m getting closer.

Because of my background as a special education teacher, I often joke that I teach all of my students as if they are gifted students with learning differences. I say this in jest, but I truly do use the same techniques that I use to meet the needs of students on both ends of the continuum. I scaffold the learning so that each student can be successful while trying to provide innovative, high-interest activities to satisfy their innate curiosity and drive. Below are some supplemental activities, besides discussing the novel, that I used when I taught an 8th grade science fiction unit revolving around The Giver. NOTE: I never spend more than three or four weeks on a novel. I have a short attention span.

Prior to reading:

  • As a class, we discussed the idea of Utopian societies and how they have been attempted over the course of history.
  • Students worked in groups to develop their own Utopian society including such items as a flag with a representative symbol, a constitution of their beliefs, an advertisement of their unique assets, and a set of rules that must be followed.

During reading:

  • We practiced storytelling with a favorite family memory.
  • We determined current milestone birthdays and their societal meaning.

During and After reading:

  • We read additional science fiction such as Harrison Bergeron, and watched a couple of Twilight Zone episodes (Number 12 Looks Exactly Like You and Eye of the Beholder). We listened to “One Tin Soldier,” “Utopia,” and “Imagine.” We discussed the hippie movement and its goals. We compared and contrasted these in discussions of the ideas of total equality and the definition of perfection.
  • We debated whether it would be good or bad to have our negative memories removed.
  • We made connections to global society today.

In future posts, I will share how I scaffolded our whole-class novel experiences from the beginning to the end of this year to achieve a gradual release of responsibility.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to learning with you.

 

You mean we get to read for fun?

Whenever I am in a group of English teachers and we discuss our classroom practices, I share that the best thing I have done for my students over the last six years is to offer them ten minutes of free, choice reading at the beginning of every class. I even offer to share the research demonstrating the validity of this practice because I believe in it so much. They challenge me by saying that they cannot afford to give up the classroom time because they have so much material to cover. I completely understand this as I only have 45 minute class periods myself, but I can’t imagine taking this time away. It is a challenge, but it is non-negotiable. The conversation inevitably turns to how I assess this choice reading. I dread this question because it puts me on the defensive. My answer is that I don’t. I am always met with disbelief, disapproval, or peers that tell me their kids won’t read if it is not for points, a prize, or a grade. This has not been my experience. It works for me and my students and I see the results in their improved reading, writing, and speaking skills. Additionally, they are completely engaged on a daily basis. They enter class and open their books right away. They share their favorite books with me and even show me passages that they particularly enjoy. You can hear a pin drop during those ten minutes and they groan when it’s over. That’s enough assessment for me.

I consider Donalyn Miller, Terry Lesesne, Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, Stephen Krashen, and Kylene Beers (among others) to be experts on this topic and all are a huge influence on the way I run my class. I have drunk their Kool-Aid and it is my favorite flavor–literacy. In his book, Readicide, Kelly Gallagher asks readers to put themselves in their happy reading place at home. He asks, “Do you finish your book quickly so you’ll have more time to write a report, make a poster, or build a diorama?” Of course not. Adults do not do this, and children should not have to either.

My students do a great deal of formal and informal activities with the books that they read. I require them to keep a reading log including the author, title, genre, rating, and rationale for their rating. I want them to look for patterns to learn what they love and where there may be areas for growth. I have them write a literacy letter to me each marking period. They tell me what they are enjoying reading and why, and I respond to their letter. They do book talks, book trailers, and book recommendations one another. We have book swaps and book floods, write reviews for bulletin boards, make graffiti walls of favorite quotes, and use the texts as examples for mentor texts. I just don’t grade their reading in any way. These activities are naturally motivating and they always complete them. The bonus is that the children are always reading. I almost can’t keep up with the requests for book recommendations. They get so excited when I tell them I tweeted the author to tell them how much they loved the book. They take their books to other classes and read when they finish their work. (To the point where a colleague complained that all the kids wanted to do was read, and another colleague replied that there are worse problems we could have.) What more can I say? This system just works for me.

I don’t know whether this will work for you, but you truly have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Signing off for now. I am sure there is a twitter chat I am missing.

Working Title

Working Title is NOT the name of the book I eventually hope to write about Student Engagement and Motivation. I always wanted to call it “You Gotta Reach ‘Em to Teach ‘Em,” but variations of this title already exist. I have other ideas, but since I know less than nothing about publishing, I have to investigate whether I should put my ideas out there in the ether before I do so. Regardless, I do intend to write this book someday. In my dream world, it would be published and I will have a title then. In the interim, I am going to write this blog. I consider it a book in permanent draft form.

 

Why the title?

I titled my blog “The Accidental English Teacher” as a way to explain how I came to this profession and as an homage to one of my favorite writers–Anne Tyler. If you want to know the whole story, feel free to read the About Me section.

Even though I did not set out to become an English teacher, I now can’t imagine doing anything else. The stars and all of my passions have aligned, and I truly understand what people mean by dream job. I no longer have the Sunday night stomach aches I used to have at previous jobs that emotionally and physically drained me. Teaching English, I feel energized and excited to get to do what I love and am ready to share what I have learned and believe about being the best teacher I can possibly be for my students.

My specialty is Student Engagement and Motivation so the majority of posts will be on what I find to be effective strategies for making my class a place that students want to be and where they put forth their best effort.

I hope you find something to be of use and that you will share in return. I look forward to learning with you.