Short Stories, Picture Books, and Video Clips for Notice and Note

Those of you who have read my previous posts know that I am a huge fan of Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst. I started using it in my sixth grade English classes and saw levels of analysis I had never achieved when using traditional methods of close reading. Their concrete, user-friendly strategy made even the most difficult texts accessible to all.

For the last two years, I have used a combination of the examples given in the book and short stories to teach each signpost before we applied them to whole class novels. (See previous posts.) This year, I decided to add picture books and video clips to the mix. Because my classes are only 45 minutes long and I have to teach all of ELA in that time, I don’t use as many books and videos and I would like (or as are available), but the addition of these two things made the signposts even more valuable to my class. They had no trouble finding them when we read our first novel, Walk Two Moons.

Below are the resources I used this year. I always began and ended with a short story and showed the video and read the picture books in between. After we had learned all of them, I had them search in my many picture books for more.

(NOTES: I currently teach at an all-girls’ school, so the short stories reflect that. See my previous posts for more examples of stories to use. There are also numerous other picture books that have great examples of signposts. Also, I purchased the Pixar shorts DVDs.)

CONTRASTS AND CONTRADICTIONS

Short Stories

  • Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes
  • Priscilla and the Wimps by Richard Peck

Picture Books

  • My Teachers is a Monster (No, I am Not) by Peter Brown
  • Julius, Baby of the World by Kevin Henkes

Video Clip

  • Tin Toy – Pixar Shorts Vol 1

WORDS OF THE WISER

 Short Stories

  • Tuesday of the Other June by Norma Fox Mazer
  • Who Are You Today, Maria? by Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • Flowers and Freckle Cream by Elizabeth Ellis

Picture Books

  • That Is Not A Good Idea by Mo Willems
  • One Word From Sophia by Jim Averbeck

Video Clips

A-HA MOMENT

Short Stories

  • The Richer, The Poorer by Dorothy West
  • A-Ha Moment by Julia Alvarez (from Oprah Magazine)

Picture Books

  • My Rotten, Redheaded Older Brother by Patricia Polacco
  • Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown (he’s a class favorite author)

Video Clips

AGAIN AND AGAIN

Short Stories

  • Eleven by Sandra Cisneros
  • Charles by Shirley Jackson (also has a good A-Ha moment)

Picture Books

  • Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
  • I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

Video Clips

MEMORY MOMENT

 Short Story

  • My Grandmother’s Hair by Cynthia Rylant

Picture Books

  • Aunt Flossie’s Hats (and Crab Cakes Later) by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard

Video Clip

  • Time Travel Mater – Pixar Shorts vol 2

TOUGH QUESTIONS

Short Story

  • The Third Wish by Joan Aiken

Picture Books

  • Bully by Patricia Polacco
  • The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth (based on a story by Tolstoy)

Video Clip

  • La Luna – Pixar Shorts vol 2
  • Partly Cloudy – Pixar Shorts vol 2

Many of the other Pixar shorts would be great to use as well, but in the interest of time, these are all I had the opportunity to use this year.

For example:

Presto for AGAIN AND AGAIN

For the Birds for A-HA MOMENT

George and AJ for CONTRASTS AND CONTRADICTIONS

There are also numerous collections of award-winning shorts available on YouTube.

My goals for next summer are to find some more animated shorts and also add in songs, poetry, and art. I am also going to ask the students to find some examples of these themselves this spring when we do more literary analysis.

 

Channeling Goldilocks, Revisited

Smartbrief published a modified version of my Goldilocks post on June 8, 2015

As a naturally reflective person and educator, I am on a never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience for my students. Unfortunately, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists, as I realize that it is the end of the school year, and I haven’t accomplished everything I had planned. Worse, I am growing weary of striving for perfection. 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 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 loved teaching in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?
Here’s my problem: I am addicted to professional literature and development. I want my students to love literature like Penny Kittle’s do, to write as much as Kelly Gallagher’s, become life-long pleasure readers like Donalyn Miller’s, and to enjoy active engagement strategies from Dave Burgess and Jeff Wilhelm. I have read all of their work and had the pleasure of meeting most in person. I am simultaneously inspired by their ideas and insecure that I will never be able to measure up.
I also attempt to go to at least one national literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each session. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from weekly Twitter chats. Trouble is, 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. The problem is that I struggle to incorporate all of them in one school year, and have never once done so.
Here are some of the things I learned from the greats and loved doing with my students:
Genius Hour
PBL
Reading/writing workshop
Book clubs
Article of the Week
Independent, choice reading
Whole-class novel study
Student blogging
Book talks
Read alouds
Debates
TED-style talks
Author visits
Community service
and many more
The difficulty is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in the short amount of time I am given, but I don’t know how to prioritize what to eliminate. I get frustrated because I know all of these add value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are my non-negotiables, so I have to cut things that are not part of this trifecta such as read alouds. I know this is not good, especially when I hear experts I respect tell me how they could not imagine an English class without read alouds. I nod because I know the research backs up this practice, and I would love to share this experience with my students, so I try to find a way to put it back in the mix. Unfortunately, it means I must forgo something else. Thus begins the cycle of beating myself up for not being able to do everything I want and need to do in my class.
Whenever I get down on myself, I pull one of my favorite books out of my professional library and sit down hoping for some sort of magical inspiration. This never works. I usually end up becoming more discouraged because I want my class to look like that in the text — every single day. Yet, it doesn’t, and probably never will. I, like all teachers, have to function under the parameters of my current teaching situation. For me, my limitation is that I have 45 minutes per day with my students to teach them reading, writing, speaking and listening. No small feat, indeed.
In an effort to cheer myself up, I remind myself that we all have challenging teaching situations. Many middle-school teachers have much longer classes than mine — some are even double in length. True, they have their own constraints and obstacles, but I know that I could do so much more just going from 45 to just 60 minute class periods. I can’t foresee a time in the near future when I will miraculously have all the time in the world with my students, so I keep trying to get the porridge to just the right temperature.
Logic then enters and also helps ease my mind. I tell myself that most of the authors I read focus primarily on the topic in their writing and often don’t wish to include every other great idea out there because they have been incredibly successful with their own methods. They have one passion and they are great at it. Sure, I would love to be Penny Kittle and do equal justice to both reading and writing in my classroom, but I am not her, nor do I have her situation. The best I can do is to incorporate the portions of her brilliance that I can, and forgive myself for what I cannot. I guess that is the key. I have to be okay with being the best teacher possible within the parameters I am given. And I have a pretty fabulous teaching situation right now. The only thing that would allow me to make it “just right” would be having more time.
I eventually find solace in the fact that many of the other great teachers I know are in the same boat and also fret over not being able to squeeze in every great idea. Many of us communicate on Twitter and try to put our brains together and figure it out. We haven’t yet, but I am relieved that I am not the only teacher who loses sleep over trying to be better. So, while comforted, I remain frustrated searching for the perfect balance of activities. I may never achieve Goldilocks status in my classes, but I will continue to try. In the interim, I will keep utilizing the wisdom of others and refining my own practice. I may eventually get to the point where I have a structure with which I am completely satisfied — but I doubt it. It’s part of the quest for the classroom fairy tale.

Sixth Grade Summer Reading Recommendations

I asked my sixth grade students to do book talks on their favorite novel of the year. The only caveats I gave them were that the books must be appropriate for their age range (middle grade) and not have been made into a movie in their lifetime. I loved the choices they made!

Abbott, Tony Firegirl
Anderson, Laurie Halse Fever 1793
Asher, Jay Thirteen Reasons Why ***
Bauer, Joan Close to Famous
Bradley, Kimberly Brubaker The War that Saved My Life
Burkhart, Jessica Canterwood Crest series
Byng, Georgia Molly Moon series
Clements, Andrew Things Not Seen
Condie, Ally Matched series
Constable, Cathryn The Wolf Princess
Costew, Lori Sherpa’s Adventure
Craw, Gloria Atlantis Rising
Dashner, James Maze Runner series
DeStefano, Lauren Wither
DiCamillo, Kate The Tale of Desperaux
DiCamillo, Kate Flora and Ulysses
Dionne, Erin Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking
Draper, Sharon Stella by Starlight
Draper, Sharon Out of My Mind
Erskine, Kathryn Mockingbird
Funke, Cornelia Inheart
Gemienhart, Dan The Honest Truth
Graff, Lisa Absolutely Almost
Green, John Paper Towns ***
Gruener, Gruener, and Gatz Prisoner B-3087
Haddix, Margaret Peterson Among the Hidden
Harrison, Lisi Revenge of the Wannabes
Henkes, Kevin Junonia
Hiassen, Carl Flush
Hunt, Lynda Mullaly One for the Murphys
Kessler, Jessica Has Anyone Seen Jessica Jenkins?
LaFleur, Suzanne Eight Keys The Lions of Little Rock
Levine, Kristin
Littman, Sarah Darer Backlash ***
Lord, Cynthia Touch Blue
Lu, Marie Legend series
Martin, Ann Rain Reign
Messner, Kate Wake Up Missing
O’Dell, Scott Island of the Blue Dolphins
Palacio, R.J. Wonder
Patterson, James Maximum Ride
Riordan, Rick The Lost Hero
Russell, Renee The Dork Diaries series
Sloan, Holly Goldberg Counting by 7s
Spinelli, Jerry Stargirl
Stein, Garth Racing in the Rain, My Life as a Dog Drama
Telgemier, Raina
Telgemier, Raina Smile
Turetsky, Bianca The Time Traveling Fashionista series
Van Draanen, Wendelin The Running Dream
Verne, Jules 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Woods, Brenda The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond
Zusak, Marcus The Book Thief

The Serious Business of Classroom Fun

The text from my SmartBrief article on April 13, 2015

I’ll admit it: I enjoy being known as one of the “fun” teachers in school. I get a little lift when they walk in and the first thing they say is, “I heard English was fun today. I’m excited.” It gives me great satisfaction to know that my students enjoy coming to class and that they often share what we do with their parents when they get home. This doesn’t happen by accident. I consciously work to present material in ways that are not only effective, but also enjoyable. It gives me infinite pleasure to hear their giggles in the middle of an activity. It’s one of the reasons I continue to love my job even after all of these years.

Unfortunately, not every teacher shares my philosophy. Some are under the misconception that students enjoy a class because it is fun and no real learning is involved. They don’t believe that students can possibly be engaged in rigorous educational endeavors if they are laughing, moving and talking. This is absolutely not the case. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean it’s easy.

To some teachers, rigor — by the way, I hate that word when applied to education — just means hard. It means worksheet packets or excessive problems assigned every night, including weekends and vacations. It means the teacher drones on and on while requiring students to take copious amounts of notes. It means rote learning and very little critical thinking. It means they are not allowed to “help” each other learn. It means the child’s interest in or connection to the material is irrelevant. It means assignments that might be beyond the reach of their students. It means that many students fail their tests. This is why so many education writers speak of “grit.” It would take real fortitude to tough it out in the classroom described above. Children wouldn’t need grit if the task weren’t such drudgery. The bottom line is this: If many students dislike a class, they are not learning as much as they could be.

I strongly believe in what two of my edu-heroes say about rigor. Both Kylene Beers and Harvey Daniels say that there can be rigor without rigor mortis. The first time I heard each of them say that, I wrote it down in my notebook with a huge exclamation point next to it, and I’ve never forgotten it. It truly speaks to the essence of my teaching.

How do I achieve a high level of rigor without killing the love of learning? Simple. I put myself in my students’ shoes. I figure that if I am bored while designing learning opportunities, they will surely tune out. Every time I sit through a mind-numbing professional development day, I vow to keep this at the forefront when outlining a unit. I think about how I would want to learn and what keeps me interested.

In my experience, there are several facets to “edutainment” and the best lessons incorporate as many as possible.

  • Humor: No one is asking teachers to become Jon Stewart, but he does present challenging material on a nightly basis in an entertaining way, albeit on an adult level. By finding the humor in what the students consider mundane, teachers will be able to engage as well as inform. While humor cannot be found in every topic we teach, the more often we can find the fun, the more effective our instruction.
  • Novelty: It is true that children thrive on structure. In my class, that translates to our sacred 10 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of every class. Beyond that, I rarely do the same thing two days in a row. Students get a little thrill in not knowing exactly what comes next. I’m not the only one who believes this. When I read Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess, I was invigorated by the various “hooks” he presented as methods to engage students and ignite passion in both the teacher and the kids. Similar to Howard Gardner’s Entry Points, Burgess provides techniques for incorporating art, drama, story, and movement to introduce new material and keep the students on the edge of their seats wondering what the teacher will do next.
  • Ownership: Earlier this year, I had tremendous success with student-designed Passion Projects. These self-directed research and design projects held their attention for several months. In the feedback I received from students, many said it was one of the most enjoyable things they had ever done in school. It took very little preparation on my part. All I had to do was give them the opportunity and time. They had a blast and learned valuable skills in the process. It was such a hit that we are beginning round two next week. It doesn’t only apply to something as a long-term endeavor. To the greatest extent possible, I incorporate choice into every lesson we do.
  • Relevance: Provide some sort of real-world connection to the material. This works especially well if the examples are bizarre, hilarious or shocking. When the students see how the concepts they are learning have application to their daily lives or are evident in the world around them, they get much more excited to complete the necessary work to be successful.
  • Collaboration: I teach adolescents. That means I would constantly be fighting a losing battle by forcing them to keep to themselves and remain quiet every day. Human beings are social by nature, and none more so than teens and tweens. By incorporating “legal” opportunities for them to chat, I find that, when they do talk in class, they are mostly on task. Between small group and whole class discussion, they talk much more than I do, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • Activity: The school days when I am most miserable are the days when no students are present– professional development days. It is not that I don’t enjoy the learning; I do. It is the act of being forced to sit in a hard, unforgiving chair for 8 hours with very few breaks that makes me want to act out and be disruptive. Imagine how awful it is when we ask beings with the metabolism of rabbits to sit still, be silent and avoid playing with things at their desk. I’m not saying we need to incorporate a calisthenics program, but allowing them to move from station to station, cross the room to look at a display, use hand movements to reinforce concepts, or even just rotate seats, will go a long way toward releasing some of the pent-up need for movement. On the days when sitting still is required, at least provide some sort of fidget toy for them to expend some of that energy.
  • Critical thinking: Some of the most enjoyable times I have in class are the days when we do collaborative inquiry lessons. Students work together, using inductive and deductive reasoning, to determine solutions to the task at hand. An added bonus to this type of learning is that the material is more cemented in their minds because they were active participants in the learning.

A fun classroom does not mean that students aren’t learning. It means that they are learning in the ways that meet their needs. It also doesn’t mean that only natural comedians will be successful teachers. It merely means designing lessons with the kids in mind. The side effect is that kids have a great time and maybe even learn something in the process — no grit required. So the next time you hear laughter coming from the classroom of the teacher next door, please don’t assume the students are goofing around. Mine aren’t.

Plagiarism: An Ounce of Prevention

ID-100213876My SmartBlog on Education article from 11.04.14

I do not enjoy being the plagiarism police with my middle school students. For me, detecting plagiarism and determining consequences take more energy than investing time into proactively planning assignments that don’t lend themselves to copying.

Here are some steps I take and recommend to try to prevent plagiarism before it begins. I won’t claim that these will make the assignment plagiarism proof, but they will certainly make it more difficult.

 

  1. Discuss the idea of plagiarism on a personal level. Have a conversation about how annoying it is when someone copies them on a superficial level such as hairstyle, clothing, catchphrases, etc. Then, take it to a deeper level and discuss how they would feel if someone stole the product of their hard labor. Perhaps even share some current plagiarism scandals in the news.
  2. Explicitly teach the skills of paraphrasing and summarizing. It is not enough to tell students to “put it in your own words” or “don’t copy” because many don’t know what else to do. It doesn’t have to be boring. For example, they enjoy when I challenge them to take a couple of paragraphs of text and summarize them in exactly 12 words.
  3. Incorporate some form of collaboration, discussion, and feedback into the project. Also, add the element of publicly sharing their work in on online format. These encourage students to produce original work due to the social pressure of their work being read by more than just the teacher.
  4. Add a personal reflection component—either within the assignment itself, or thinking back on the process of completing the work.
  5. Connect the assignment to something you have specifically done in class. Incorporate a news article they read, a video clip you showed, or a class discussion into the final product.
  6. Break the assignment into chunks and have required check-ins regularly. Some students copy because they waited until the last minute and are rushing.
  7. Conference with the student throughout the process. This will allow you to determine to what extent they are understanding their topic. For instance, you could ask them what surprised them most from their research thus far. In addition, some part of the assignment should be completed in class with teacher supervision.
  8. Designate one specific source they must use (ideally a current one).
  9. Add a piece that cannot be copied. For example, students could interview an expert or design an oral presentation.
  10. Most importantly, design assignments utilizing higher-order thinking skills and creativity. When students are required to explain, problem solve, evaluate, hypothesize, or compare, it is nearly impossible for them to find this kind of assignment online from which to borrow. To illustrate: rather than writing a biography of a president (a sure recipe for plagiarism), have them write a mock letter to the post office or the White House persuading the officials to designate a new stamp or holiday to be held in that president’s honor due to his many accomplishments.

http://smartblogs.com/education/2014/11/03/plagiarism-an-ounce-of-prevention/

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net

Tips to Ease Test Anxiety

ID-100104405My SmartBlog on Education article for 03.06.15

I distinctly remember one terrible part of my unremarkable years of playing softball. During practice, I could hit the ball far enough for at least a base hit. Then — the game. As soon as I was up to bat, I would freeze up and choke, barely hitting the ball to the pitcher. I would have been a surefire out if it weren’t for the fact that I was so short that I had a very narrow strike zone and got walked a lot. I now know that I suffered from performance anxiety, but at the time I was devastated until I finally convinced my father that I should quit playing. I can still recall the relief at never having to bat in a game again.
Now that I teach, I recognize the signs of performance anxiety in my middle-school students in one specific area — text anxiety. While it’s true that a certain amount of trepidation and doubt are normal before any high-stakes event, their anxiety borders on debilitating. They experience the same feelings I had while standing in the batter’s box: sweaty hands, rapid heartbeat, nervous fidgeting, light-headedness and a suddenly blank mind.
When students are anxious during tests, they are less likely to perform up to their academic potential. They often end up doing poorly, which starts a cycle of self-doubt and disappointment. Fortunately, there are many ways that classroom teachers can help ease text anxiety by addressing the needs of the whole child.
Optimizing the physical environment on test day will go a long way in helping students be able to focus on the task at hand.

  • This is not the day to try out a completely new seating arrangement or change out posters on the wall. The more that the classroom looks like the conditions in which the material was taught, the better.
  • Try to minimize distractions and keep the classroom as calm and quiet as possible. When a child is already anxious, they are more likely to be distracted by the slightest noise or movement.
  • Allow the students to spread out the seats, if possible, so that they may concentrate on what’s on their desk and not their neighbor’s.

Consider supplying some sort of fidget toy. Many soft, quiet “touchable” toys can be found at a dollar store or even homemade. Displacing some of that physical energy can help ease some psychological discomfort.

Because adolescents are social beings and greatly affected by the opinion of their peers, teachers need to make all efforts to protect their fragile sense of self.

  • Share their grades with them privately. Grades should never be a competition. Posting grades (even if you don’t use student names) is a destructive practice. Even if you don’t think they will figure out whose grade is whose, they will. And it can be hurtful.
  • It is not necessary to share the grade breakdown either for the same reasons as above. It does nothing but rub it in to the student who scored poorly.
  • One practice I have used in all my years of teaching that has made the most difference is to not allow any student to get up to hand in their tests when finished. Seeing their peers get up to turn in a paper early only increases their sense of urgency if they are already petrified of failing. Instead, I tell every student to turn their paper over at their desk and read silently (I teach English and they all have a choice reading book). When I’ve taught other subjects, I have put some sort of puzzle or activity on the back for them to do while others finish. This practice has received more thanks from students and parents than almost any other thing I do.

A few simple ideas can help lessen the cognitive load that is distracting them from the material they are trying to recall or formulate.

  • My school places a large calendar for each grade in the staff lounge. An electronic calendar works great too. All the teachers in that grade record tests, project due dates, and quizzes on it so that they can monitor the schedule for overload. This way, a student will never experience the nightmare of three tests in one day or the like.
  • As a regular practice, on non-test days, teachers can give students practical test-taking tips as well as sample questions so that they feel more comfortable with the format on test day.
  • Consider flexible time limits or breaking the test into parts so that students who are already anxious don’t feel rushed and tempted to guess.
  • A pet peeve of mine is teachers who put unfair or trick questions on a test to “separate the As from the Bs” or test over material not covered in class. A test is supposed to assess their understanding of the material they learned, not some sort of magical thinking.
  • Most importantly, make all attempts to help kids deal with the intense, possibly debilitating, emotions causing their minds to go blank. Blowing the significance of the test out of proportion causes text anxiety for some. Very few classroom tests are do-or-die. At least they shouldn’t be. Helping the students gain some perspective about this one test’s place in the overall scheme allows them to regain some logical thinking.
  • Give as much notice as possible before the test. Even though not all of your students will need this courtesy, it is invaluable to those who do. Many students have incredibly busy lives outside of school and need to by hyper organized to succeed. Last-second notice is unfair.
  • Teach them a simple deep breathing or meditating technique and have all students begin each test with this practice.
  • Discuss test anxiety as a real entity and have students share strategies they have used on their own to help cope. They may have ideas you never thought of and it also helps normalize their emotions by realizing they are not alone.
  • It doesn’t hurt for you to be their cheerleader before the test. Let them know that you have confidence in them and that they have studied the material. They trust your guidance and a little confidence boost may be all some of them need.

I am sure many teachers have their own experiences with performance anxiety such as I had with softball. The difference is that this source of student anxiety is not an extracurricular activity — it is not going away. The reality is that we live in a data and test-driven society. Since the ultimate goal of testing is to measure student understanding of the material, reducing anxiety will result in a more reliable assessment. Furthermore, teachers will be doing a great service in helping students deal with this issue now before the tests become high-stakes. None of the techniques suggested above are overly complicated, but if they can alleviate even a little bit of test stress, it will be time well spent.

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/03/06/tips-to-ease-students-test-anxiety/

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Passion Project Serendipity

My SmartBlog on Education article from 01.09.05

Passion Project Serendipity

One thing I have learned in over 20 years of teaching middle school is to expect the unexpected. When the unexpected surpasses the original plan: serendipity.

This fall, I had high hopes that implementing Passion Projects would accomplish several lofty academic goals. My classroom is student-centered, meaning I believe in choice and inquiry-based learning. I do not spoon-feed information to my pupils, but rather encourage them to seek answers on their own. Their learning experiences should be purposeful and authentic to the extent that this is feasible. For better or worse, a world full of information is at their fingertips. This, coupled with adults who often don’t allow children to grapple with challenges, means that many of our students don’t have practice with critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. I wanted to spark their curiosity as well as inspire them to work beyond what comes easily. As an English teacher, I also wanted students to practice their verbal communication skills and thought that a presentation on a subject about which they were passionate would be the best avenue. The end result was full of happy accidents and completely exceeded my expectations.

To introduce Passion Projects, I asked my students to contemplate the following three questions: 1) What do you want to learn how to do? 2) What would you like to create? or 3) Who would you like to help? (I allowed them to combine two of the three.) When they submitted their project proposals, I was a bit concerned by the results because I wasn’t sure if they were overreaching their abilities or how they would be received at home. Fortunately, I worried needlessly, because things worked out surprisingly well in the end.

The first unexpected result was that many of my students chose Passion Projects that involved little or no technology. Their plans involved old-fashioned “domestic” pursuits such as knitting, sewing, needlepoint, crocheting, or cooking. Others selected technical projects such as building architectural models, crafting organizational products for school lockers, or constructing an LED lit umbrella. A few elected to explore the arts through photography, creative writing, painting, and paper sculpture. What’s more, almost all of these involved learning the skill from a parent or grandparent or actively involving them in the execution. I had anticipated neither the desire for traditional, hands-on experiences, nor the wish for family involvement. The feedback I received from the adults thanked me for the opportunity for bonding time at a time when it is the child’s natural instinct to pull away. The students themselves stated that they enjoyed getting to spend the extra time with their parents or grandparents to create what became keepsakes or new family traditions. Many marveled at the level of skill involved. I was touched hearing their stories during their presentations and was even inspired to replicate a couple of the projects with my own family.

The second fortunate happenstance was that I had forgotten about the natural altruism of middle school students. I was completely surprised that so many chose to complete projects to benefit others through causes close to their heart. Many designed fundraising opportunities for charities such as animal shelters, medical research, domestic violence shelters, or the homeless—to a great degree of success. Some even received public recognition for their contributions. During the Passion Project presentations, their pride in their accomplishments brought me great joy.

One final, completely serendipitous, result of the Passion Project experience was that it naturally promoted a growth mindset. On their written reflections, students unknowingly expressed growth mindset tenets such as “it was really challenging and we had to work past our limits,” “it taught me a work ethic—I didn’t want to quit,” “it pulled something out of me that I might not have discovered otherwise,” and, “we didn’t need a teacher to hold our hands—just to stand beside us.” The parents provided similar feedback marveling at the maturity and inspiration they saw in their children.

Even though Passion Projects began as a way to provide real-world research and fun public-speaking opportunities, they evolved into so much more. Now that I’ve seen the power of their passion, I look forward to repeating these projects. Who knows what surprises lay in store?

http://smartblogs.com/education/2015/01/09/pbl-spotlight-passion-project-serendipity/

How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird: Reviving the Whole-Class Novel

(Disclaimer: The main title for this post, How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird, was a gift to me from a talented teacher, Kevin English. Check out his wonderful blog: English’s Education.)

"It's a sin to kill a mockingbird."     ~Harper Lee

“It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” ~Harper Lee

First things first. I have to get this off my chest: I like teaching whole-class novels. There, I’ve said it. I know it is not a popular point of view in the current English teaching world, but whole-class novels have been good to me. Over the years, I have found the whole-class novel to be an incredible community building and learning process for my students and I have come up with some ways to make it a worthwhile experience. You don’t have to commit Readicide so that all you’re left with is a beaten, bloody carcass of what was once a perfectly fine work of literature. Students will engage with a text if given the opportunity, guidance, and support they need.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Ariel Sacks who put her approach to teaching whole-class novels on paper in Whole Novels for the Whole Class. This opened the door for the rest of us who also want to share. If you’ve read her great book, you will see that many of the things she and I do are similar, but there are a few differences. What follows is a brief overview of my thoughts and of my process.

[An important note: Choice reading and read-alouds (of short texts, not whole novels due to time constraints) are also components of my balanced literacy classroom. As I have stated previously, I believe there is a place for all three.]

1. I believe in teaching the READER, not the READING. I use whole-class novels as a community building and learning experience, not as a means to formally assess students. Because we read the book together, we have a touchstone to refer back to in future class sessions. Not every student loves every book we read, but they all experience growth and gain some appreciation for the author’s writing ability.

2. I also want my students to read like writers so we use our study of the text to explore the writer’s craft. We talk about WHY the author may have written what he/she has and HOW they have structured the novel to achieve their desired goals. We appreciate their use of the language and try to emulate our favorite parts.

3. I have a short attention span, which greatly benefits my students. I do not spend any more than 3 weeks (possibly 4 if there are vacation days involved) on a novel. What’s more, we only read one per marking period. This means that in my current situation of teaching 6th grade in trimesters, we read 3 community reads for a total of 9 – 11 weeks which leaves plenty of time for other activities and choice reading throughout the year. When I taught in quarters to 8th graders—we read four books per year but the last one was in small book clubs with each group reading a different book of their choice.

4. I provide lot of “framing” for the text such as historical context, current examples of the theme in the world, the author’s background, and topic floods to eliminate possible barriers to understanding. Often students will say they don’t like a book, but that is because they don’t always understand what is going on. Imagine trying to appreciate Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry without a knowledge of Jim Crow. My students read a wonderful book called Ties That Bind, Ties That Break, but it necessitates that I teach them about Confucius and about foot binding.

5. I structure the discussion around essential questions and themes. This makes the book, no matter the genre, easily relatable to other material because the themes are universal.

6. I choose a book that is at the reading level of the majority of my students, but is also an engaging work of literary merit such as a Newbery honor/award book. I don’t always go for the most popular books because many of them read these on their own. I choose a book that I think they might enjoy, but might have passed over, or a book that is a little older that they may not have heard about. For those for whom the text is a bit of a stretch, I incorporate many scaffolding and support techniques including audio books, partner reads, read aloud, parent involvement, and guided study groups to ensure that they can access the material. I disagree with the criticism that those students who are not as challenged by the book are getting nothing out of it. For me, rigor is the depth of thought involved in the process and not the decoding of the words on the page. Most of what we do is open-ended and they take the discussions to incredibly insightful levels.

7. I divide the book into chunks and provide a reading calendar of when the class discussions will happen. I always allow for at least a day in between readings due so that we may explore other aspects of the novel as well as incorporate writing. Some of the discussions happen through online avenues as well, but I generally prefer face to face whenever possible. This allows them to piggyback on their peers’ responses in a more immediate way and I can keep them going if they encounter a roadblock or get too far off on a tangent.

8. I allow students to read ahead so long as they do not do “spoilers” during the discussion. They have been very good about honoring this policy. If we get partway through the book and some just could not wait to finish (as often happens), I will allow them the time to work in a small group to discuss things that happened after the chapters the rest are discussing.

9. I find a literacy focus and learning target for reading. Students can’t hit a bullseye if they don’t know the target. For me, the magic bullet in making sure all students can explore and appreciate the novel in depth has been incorporating Notice and Note into the mix. I cannot say enough about how much I adore this book and have written several posts about it. (This one primarily addresses Notice and Note with regards to whole-class novels.) Ariel Sacks reaches the same degree of thought using using three levels of questioning: literal, inferential, and critical. Jeffrey Wilhelm has some great ideas in Fresh Takes on Teaching Literary Elements and Chris Lehman and Kate Robert write about Lens, Patterns, and Understanding in Falling in Love with Close Reading.

It doesn’t matter which method you use to help your students to understand and appreciate the text as they all have merit. However, you will notice that none of these authors advocates the use of study guides, comprehension questions at the end of the every chapter, the memorization of vocabulary words out of context, and endless worksheets. You want students to appreciate the tree that was killed to print such a wonderful work of art, not the tree that was killed in making a blizzard of worksheets.

10. During class discussions, honor their thoughts. There is no one right answer. Nothing bugs me more than teachers who ask questions about a novel and will allow for anything but the answer they have hidden in their head.

11. Gradually release responsibility as the year goes on. In my class, for the first novel, the students lead the discussion of each chunk of text based on Notice and Note signposts they have found. The only writing during the reading required is a one sentence summary of the main event of each chapter. I find that this helps them in the future when they want to refer back to the text. For the second novel, we focus on a couple of signposts, the chunks of text are larger, and students bring in their own questions to ask of peers. During the third novel of the year, students are grouped in Book Clubs to allow for more discussion time. These students determine their own deadline and chunks of text for each discussion. (Note: I teach sixth grade. When I have debriefed my process with students at the end of the year, they have told me that they don’t want to begin discussions after they have read the entire book because it feels like too much. They prefer breaking the novel into thirds because they want to make sure that they understand everything along the way. They also don’t want to wait to talk about what is going on.) Each student brings in things they “noticed” in that section as well as topics for discussion. I appoint a discussion facilitator and let them go to it. They love it and there is no down time.

12. I incorporate writing assignments and active experiences that tie to the book and complement the text. For example, we read Walk Two Moons and there is a chapter where the mother explores the importance and origin of her name. We then read “My Name” by Sandra Cisneros and “Isn’t My Name Magical” by James Berry and they write their own creative piece about their name. You will not that these are not what Donalyn Miller calls “Language arts and crafts.” No dioramas, no character drawings, no book jackets, no travel brochures. I use authentic, meaningful, relevant writing experiences to draw them deeper into the text as well as allow for personal connections to be made. In this post, I gave examples of some of these experiences I used when teaching The Giver.

13. I grade almost nothing during this time. At the end, there is a reflective writing piece as well as some kind of literary analysis writing, but they are ready for this based on the rich discussions they have experienced.

There is no perfect system for teaching everything I need to teach in the limited amount of time I am given, but this way of teaching whole-class novels allows me to achieve my teaching objectives without killing the novels and/or monopolizing the entire school year with these experiences. Give yourself the freedom to try teaching the novel as a reading experience and not as a 9-week worksheet. I think you will enjoy the change. I know your students will.

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net

Whole-Class Novels vs. Student Choice Reading–Why Not Both?

As I’ve said before, I am a PD junkie. Even though I have been teaching for over 20 years, I read every new book that comes out on teaching English. I feel the same way about these books as I do about attending professional conferences. If I gain one new, great idea, then it was worth the price. Plus, I face the same challenge as many of my secondary colleagues—I have to teach reading, writing, speaking, grammar, usage, and mechanics in a mere 45 minutes a day. I guess I figure that someday I will find the Holy Grail book that will give me the answer to how to structure my “Goldilocks” class. So far, I haven’t found it, and this blog is my attempt to work through this challenge.

Through my reading, I found one curricular tradition that has taken a huge beating in the last several years is the teaching of the whole-class novel. It almost feels as if a gauntlet has been thrown down and English teachers are forced to take the side of continuing to teach whole class novels or of an entirely student choice model. I don’t believe it has to be either-or. I find a balance of whole-class novels, free voluntary reading, and read-alouds to be the trifecta of a winning reading curriculum. Erica Beaton also calls for a balance of these concepts and did a fantastic series of posts on her blog that I encourage you to check out: Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading.

What I believe most people hate about whole-class novels is that they are continuing to be the main source of reading instruction in schools, and they are being taught very, very badly. If we address those two issues, we could achieve a winning formula for engaging reading instruction.

I am not alone in my thinking. Many of my professional mentors such as Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, and Cris Tovani still teach whole class novels, but not as the backbone of their curriculum either—whole-class novels are but one component. Ariel Sacks has written an entire book devoted to teaching the whole class novel, Whole Novels for the Whole Class. I agree with much of what she says in the book, and I also facilitate a student-centered class. I have been teaching similarly to Ms. Sacks for several years (ever since I read Readicide and the Book Whisperer) and I am happy to see her book become so successful because it means that there are like-minded teachers out there. Even those who believe all reading in a class should be of a student’s choice incorporate the reading aloud of novels so they are, in effect, also sharing a group reading experience with their students.

I have written about this before (Channeling Goldilocks: Attempting to get it “just right” ), but wanted to go into more depth and also show how useful Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst has been in refining how I use whole-class novels. Stay tuned for my next post: How NOT to Kill To Kill a Mockingbird: Reviving the Whole Class Novel.

Genius Hour for the Greater Good

ID-100254843It is a wonderful thing to be in the position of being in awe of my students. Last year, I dipped my toe into the Genius Hour concept by having my sixth graders complete a mini-research project on the topic of their choice. They truly enjoyed this process and presenting their findings, so I knew I could push it further this year. After learning everything I could from Joy Kirr, Paul Solarz, and Angela Maiers, I took the plunge on Genius Hour this year—with a twist.

I threw out three questions to my students: What do you want to learn how to do? What do you want to create? or Who do you want to help? and told them they could combine any two. Because of the personal nature of the projects, I chose an alternative name for Genius Hour and they became Passion Projects.

I had greatly underestimated my students’ capacity for wanting to make a difference. Many chose to combine learning a skill with helping others or society. The variety of the projects and their causes was impressive.

Among their many projects are:

  • learning to crochet to make hats to donate to premature babies in hospitals
  • making and selling cupcakes to raise funds for scoliosis research
  • designing and building a vertical planter for urban gardeners
  • learning to crochet to make blankets to donate to a women’s shelter
  • research recipes and making organic dog treats to sell to raise funds for the Humane Society
  • writing and directing a video on how to prevent bullying
  • learning how to knit to make baby booties to donate to churches
  • researching and building a model of a “green” home with a living roof
  • holding a spaghetti dinner to raise funds to make hygiene kits for the homeless
  • designing and building locker items to help peers be more organized
  • making bracelets to sell to raise funds for a local animal shelter

NOTE: Although I didn’t allow for any monetary transactions at school, I was a bit concerned that several students would need to raise funds from friends and family for an organization close to their hearts. I generally don’t promote the idea of asking families for money, but I hadn’t anticipated that so many would choose to want to do so. I will be soliciting feedback from parents at the end of this project in December and may make adjustments next year that don’t involve money, but for now the parents and I are extremely impressed with their initiative. Many come from privilege and it is touching to see them realize this and want to give back.

My students are beaming with pride when they share their success with me. For example, Ella held a spaghetti dinner that had over 100 attendees and raised almost $2,000! She had estimated she would raise $800 to make the hygiene kits for the homeless and ended up being able to also purchase socks and laundry soap. She was recognized publicly at her church and her peers clapped for her when I shared this at school. She was most excited when she and her fellow congregants were able to distribute the kits. Madison, who has scoliosis and is raising awareness and fund with her project, make $120 with her first batch of cupcakes and is looking forward to her next batch. She is taking what was a life-altering diagnosis and making it into a positive.

The generosity and huge hearts of my eleven-year-old students has blown me away. They are setting a great example, exploring their passions, and feeling a real sense of accomplishment. What more can a teacher ask?

image courtesy of: freedigitalphotos.net