Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Why Reading? Why Literature?

Yesterday I flew to Washington state to visit my family and to attend my high school reunion (20 years!). When I unpacked my bags, I realized that I had brought 10 books with me. I'm staying less than a week. And what did I read on my Kindle while waiting at the airport and flying on the plane? Fantasy in Death by J.D. Robb, book 30 in a series that will publish its 37th title in September. What did I read at the start of the flight when electronics had to be off? US Weekly. During landing? Children Want to Write: Donald Graves and the Revolution in Children's Writing, edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle.

We read for a lot of different reasons, obviously. I see a lot of anchor charts on Pinterest about "author's purpose" when writing. I'm sure I've pinned some, though I'm not sure why. As teachers, the new standards have us pushing to incorporate reading into other disciplines, and reading from other content areas in English class. But how much do we honor the different reasons for reading in our classrooms? Do we do enough to encourage these reasons for reading in our classrooms?

I am not the same reader that I was 5 years ago. Yes, I probably brought a similar number of books on a trip like this, but I'll bet they were exclusively romance novels, thrillers, and YA. This time, while the stack IS heavy on YA arcs from ALA that I want to pass on to friends, there are also two books of adult literary fiction (Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter), the aforementioned writing book, and a graphic adaptation of the Gettysburg Address. And, yes, I filled my Kindle with J.D. Robb before I came (as if there wouldn't be working Internet in the wilds of Tacoma), but I will, depending on my mood, probably read a little of everything.

In my classroom, I use two categories in my reading class: "Reading" and "Literature". (I could just as easily have called the categories "you choose" and "I choose" or "your books" and "my books".) This began as categories in the gradebook, but has now started to shape how I organize our time and my teaching. I remain absolutely and fully committed to the importance of choice in a reading class, and the value of independent reading. If I had to choose between reading and literature, at any grade level, I would pick reading.

But there is something to be said for literature, for the teacher-chosen book, be it your read-aloud in 3rd grade or the Shakespeare play in an AP Lit course. Students don't have to like every work of literature put before them; real readers and scholars don't read like that. But as long as they are continuing to pursue the books that they do love through independent reading time, hopefully time in your classroom, it doesn't usually hurt them to read a great book or two along the way.

I love that my mom has these two books in her guest room.

Currently Reading: A little bit of everything. (Translation: Finishing the book I was reading on the plane.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why Geography? Part 2

When I was in high school, I spent five weeks between 9th and 10th grade living with a family in Salamanca, Spain. My reasons for going were pretty shallow; I thought it would be cool to get a passport and my friends were going. I didn't speak Spanish, so when I finished the books I brought with me, my host family took me to the university bookstore to find books in English. This is how I came to read all of Jane Austen before I was sixteen. At some point I also discovered the International Herald Tribune, and I would buy it every day it was available. I read every single article, even the ones that I didn't understand about how Iraq was mad at Kuwait about something. This was pre-Internet, and the newspaper was my only source of news.

Last year, I decided to have my 8th graders learn all the countries in the world. We didn't learn quite all of them (SO MANY ISLANDS in the Pacific Ocean!), but we did master four continents. Pretty much every kid aced the test. But if the only thing that my students took away from our geography study was the ability to win at trivia, then we failed. Ultimately, finding Mauritania on a map doesn't mean much. Our geography study is only meaningful if it's about more than maps.

Here's the thing: You can buy all the apps and bookmark all the websites, but ultimately, the best way to connect your students to the larger world is for you, the teacher, to care about the larger world. I was able to pick up on the developing stories because I made a concerted effort to read the World section of the newspaper and to pay close attention when they talked about international stories on NPR. This wasn't easy; I spent a lot of time opening Maps on my phone and asking it where Argentina was. (Okay, fine, I did that yesterday. Summer slide doesn't only happen to students.) Instead of letting my mind drift when the radio talked about terrorism in northern Mali, a country that I previously thought was a tropical island, I reminded myself that Mali is in northern Africa. I asked myself what countries bordered Mali, and thought about the implications. When a story came on about Eritrea, I listened.

I modeled this in front of my students. They love CNN Student News; I told them we would always watch when it covered international stories, and that I would ban it forever if it covered the Kardashians. We subscribe to The New York Times Upfront, and when I assign articles for note taking and quizzes, I always pick the international stories. There was a terrible factory collapse in Bangladesh last year; at the end of the week I found a variety of articles and videos online and asked my students to read them and respond via edmodo. I asked them to share new links and to examine what the sources said and didn't say. I asked them if they thought western companies and consumers were responsible for something that happened so far away.

School starts in a little over a month. We're going to take geography quizzes each week, and hopefully I'll find maps so that we can learn all the tiny island nations this year too. But I can't, with perfect accuracy, know where we'll have to pay close attention. We'll make some predictions that first week (Syria, North Korea), but others will be surprises.

A few weeks after I got back from Spain, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Several months later, the United States "liberated" Kuwait. And because I had been reading about Iraq and Kuwait all summer, I knew a little bit more about what was going on and why. This is what I hope for my classroom: That because we are paying attention, we'll be looking in the right direction the next time the world changes.

Geography practice is good bonding time between grades.

Currently reading: Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman
Why I'm Reading It: I need more books set outside the United States, and this one starts in Argentina.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Why Geography?

I think it all started with a geography app on my iPad. It could be that someone laughed when I said that we would memorize all the countries in the world this year. It is definitely true that my students' knowledge of world geography was, to put it kindly, lacking. I know that mine wasn't what it should have been.

So I decided that we would, in fact, learn all the countries in the world this year.

And we did.*

8th graders review for Africa test, December 2012

At the end of the prior school year (May of 2012), I had, out of curiosity, given my students blank maps of the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Some results were funny (Hey, look, he put New Hampshire in Montana!) and others were distressing (Pretty much no one knew the Middle East.). My own knowledge of Africa, Asia, and any country that was once part of the USSR was fairly non-existent. (Confession: I once argued fairly vehemently to a fellow teacher that there were 5 provinces in Canada and about 20 countries in Africa. I was wrong. By a lot. I only taught English at the time, and he was and is a history teacher, but still, that's pretty bad.) It was clear to me that if we were going to learn about the larger world, we should start by actually knowing where places were.

I am what one online personality profiler called a mastermind. I excel at contingency planning, at starting something that has many steps and stages, and knowing what has to happen at each step along the way. In my case, if you hand me a complicated project (teach students 150+ countries), I will break it down, plan it out, and keep to the schedule. This might sound arrogant, but I think it's interesting to think about why this project appealed to me and might have scared someone else. When I thought about learning all the countries, I almost immediately broke it down into smaller stages, easily managed and mastered. (This strength, of course, becomes a weakness if someone tried to move me away from my plans and contingencies. It's not pretty.)

As with any new project, the start was slow. Many students needed to learn the 50 states, and I had to find blank maps to use for quizzes and tests. By November, when we started studying Africa, we pretty much had our system down.

For each continent, we set up an interactive spread in our social studies notebook. (I used maps from d-maps.com. The site is amazing. All maps pictured on this post came from there originally.) We listed the countries on one page, and attached two blank maps on the facing page. The bottom map was glued down, and an indentical map was taped on top of it. The point was for students to quiz themselves easily.

This is from my notebook. The kids weren't always this neat.
The kindergarteners in after school care were very impressed with my coloring skills.

I divided each continent into regions. To make life easier, and because the site was very popular with my students, I used the regional breakdowns in the geography games at Sheppard Software. Typically, this meant that the quiz each week covered 6-10 countries. We took a prequiz on Monday and a quiz on Friday. They were exactly the same, and I posted the answer key on Edmodo after the prequiz. All of this took up to 30 minutes on the first day of a continent (8th graders + tape + glue sticks = You'll need extra maps), but only 10 minutes on most other Mondays and Fridays. When we finished a continent, we spent a week reviewing and then took a test. At the end of the year I put all the countries on one massive final.

I still haven't actually covered the why, but this post is long enough. I'll post part 2 tomorrow, so please, let me know if you have any questions, either in the comments or on Twitter.

Currently reading: Middlemarch by George Eliot
Yesterday I read: Two awesome books. I finally finished Beyond Courage by Doreen Rappaport, about the Jewish resistance in WWII. I also read an advanced copy of a terrific collection of fiction and non-fiction called Open Mic: Rifs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices, edited by Mitali Perkins. You need this collection for your classroom.

*There were 156 countries on the final (Asia, Africa, Europe, Central and South America), plus at least a dozen bonus countries (tiny ones, like Vatican City.) I never found blank maps that worked for Oceania and other islands of the world, so we weren't able to do those. Next year!


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Deciding What Fits

How do you decide which books to put in your classroom library?

Empty classroom library, circa 2011?

Each year, I begin with a fairly empty classroom library. There is no pedagogical reason for this; I simply stuff all my books into lockers or onto covered shelves to keep them as dust-free as possible and to save our building staff from having to move them when they wax the floors.

Another truth, however, is that each year I rebuild my classroom library because no group of students is ever exactly alike. There are years when the sports bin is always empty, and years when the sports books are covered in dust. Vampires are huge, vampires are out. Everyone is afraid of zombies, but a few kids love them. They want romance, they flee from the kissing books. And each year I have to decide which books belong in my classroom, and which ones don't.

I teach in a parochial school. We are not technically independent, but we don't get guidelines from downtown regarding books in our classroom libraries. I buy a lot of the books, but the school buys a lot too. (I'm lucky, I know.) Many of the rules that restrict teachers in public school classrooms don't apply to me, but at the same time, I have to at least be aware of the church's teachings when I pick books. And I teach 8th graders, students who will be in high school soon, in a building that also houses 3-year-olds.

Each year, I spend most of my time thinking about where the low and high end of my classroom library will be. Some years it's easy: If all the kids are watching Jersey Shore, I won't spend much time worrying that a book is too edgy. On the other hand, if students won't break a Tim Green-reading rut, then I'll give my Tim Green bin to the 7th grade teacher to force them into something new. As the year goes on, more and more older YA titles will find their way into students' hands. For the past few years, Christmas break seems to have been the transition point; it might be different this year.

What makes a book too mature, of course, is utterly nebulous. What is too much for one reader is old hat to another. Here are three practices in my classroom that help me navigate this terrain:

  1. The reserve shelf. It is, of course, not really called the reserve shelf. It doesn't even have a name, and since I'm moving classrooms this year, I'm not even sure of the location. It is a section of the classroom library that literally cannot be accessed without my permission. (I mean literally literally; it's not physically accessible.) Perhaps the most ironclad rule in my classroom is that no students are ever allowed behind my desk, or to touch anything on it. (The other ironclad rule is no whistling. I hate whistling.) I could write an entire post on why, but for now I will simply say that it works, and it means that any books on shelves behind my desk require a student to ask me for them. My school is small enough that I know almost every parent, so a brief conversation is enough to determine if a book is okay for a student to try.
  2. Award bins. I have been reading my way through the Printz winners and honor books over the last eighteen months. I've read 36 out of 67 so far, and almost all of them are terrific. Many of them are exactly the challenging, rewarding, important works of literature for young people that students should read, and many of them contain mature content, as they should. Last year I made Printz bins for my classroom. They were in a separate location from the rest of my library, and I had read every book in them but one, and that one is always on the HS summer reading list. I explained what those bins signified, and identified books as Printz books when I talked about them. They were some of the most popular bins in the classroom last year, but since the books weren't easy, it was rarely for prurient reasons.
  3. Books to read in high school. As a teacher of 8th graders, I sometimes come across a book that makes me wish I still taught high school, or even better, that I taught high school in an extremely progressive community. Alas, I don't. There are also books that I really want my students to read but know they aren't ready for now. I want to send them an email that arrives when they turn 17 and says "Now it's time to read . . . " So this year I had them start a list in their notebooks called "Books to Read in High School". When I finished a book or came across an author that I loved but just couldn't give to my students, I would booktalk it for their high school list. I explained why I loved it and thought it was important, and also why I thought they should read it in high school. It was a little bit these are the books I'm not allowed to give you and a little bit seriously, you're not ready for The Marbury Lens. I was barely ready for The Marbury Lens. An example: Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers is one of the most powerful, raw, and real books about high school that I have ever read. Everyone who works with teenagers should read it. It would also absolutely terrify many of my 8th graders, as in please-homeschool-me-mommy terrify. Without the experience and context of a real high school, it might be too much. On the other hand, if they find themselves with a girl like Anna Morrison in their life, then Some Girls Are will be exactly the book they need.

So I ask again: How do you decide which books to include in your classroom library?

Currently Reading: Undecided. I think I'm going to work on some of my in-progress books.
Why: Total book hangover from Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle. What book can follow that?

[Book cover to come. Indiebound isn't working.]


Friday, July 19, 2013

Read this Article: Buried Secrets (Also, Why Humanities)

I was going to write about poetry this morning, but then I came across an issue of The New Yorker open to an article that I want to use with my students this year, and I decided to write about that instead.

Screenshot of the first page from the magazine app.

You can find the entire article here.

Two years ago, our middle school switched to humanities. Previously, we had individual courses in reading, language arts, and social studies, though we had successfully blocked language arts and reading together in terms of teachers and schedules. When our social studies teacher resigned, we decided to add social studies to our blocks (religion classes were reassigned) and call it humanities. And at first, of course, it only resembled humanities in that we called it humanities. Even now, when I call my class humanities, I mean my own definition of humanities which might not match someone else's.

During the first year, there wasn't much connection between the courses. We applied our reading and writing skills to social studies, and I used Kelly Gallagher's Article of the Week for current events (I picked my own articles). And we used the textbook, which I soon grew to hate.

I knew, though, that I wanted to do something different. While I loved studying American Lit the same year I took US History in high school, I knew that I didn't want to simply teach the novels to match the time periods. I also really wanted my students to know a lot more about the world today. I believed that learning more about now, be it a factory collapse in Bangladesh or the conflict in Syria, would make studying the history of the world more relevant later in high school and college. I believed that learning where countries were would do the same. I wanted to develop the course around a theme rather than a time period.

So that's what we did. Our 7th grade already read several strong titles related to civil rights (Mississippi Trial, 1955 by Chris Crowe and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee), so the theme is Justice. For 8th grade we chose Revolution, which works with both our historical study and any novels that we might use.

This is all still very much a work in progress; it takes years to really develop a curriculum, especially when building it from scratch. And some things, especially novel choices, will change with some frequency. Last year we read (or I read to them) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, and Endangered by Eliot Schrefer. This year I am only certain about TOTC and Endangered. I will probably add Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins, and I'm thinking of starting the year with Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen, which I didn't have time for last year.

Last year, while reading and discussing Endangered, a student asked why what happened in Congo didn't happen here after the American revolution. In the novel, Sophie explains that Congo had actually become less developed in the 50 years since gaining its independence from Belguim. What made the United States different?

That, right there, is a question to build a course around.

I know from experience that an article from The New Yorker is far too difficult for 8th graders; I have friends with graduate degrees who are intimidated by the magazine. (The Economist is the one that scares me.) The above article is 13 pages long. The first six paragraphs, however, are a terrific introduction to many of the ideas we'll discuss this year. It will take time to unpack it. Students will need to slow down, a lot, and as with A Tale of Two Cities, simple comprehension will be an accomplishment.

But these ideas, these questions. . . How can a country so rich in natural resources have such a low standard of living for its people? Why did Congo fall into war and poverty while the US became the most prosperous nation in history? What is our responsibility to others when we buy a $5 t-shirt made in a factory in Bangladesh?

These questions matter. This is why we read non-fiction and fiction. It's why we push through difficult texts. It's not about a test, or about being college or career ready, whatever that means. It's about living in the world. That's the most important lesson.

Currently reading: Undecided, and that's the truth this time. Probably Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith so I can finish it before I leave town.
I wish I were reading: There's a new Billy Collins in October! Why didn't anyone tell me? Yes!

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Why Weekly Reading Records?

Despite adding A Tale of Two Cities in 8th grade, independent reading remains the core of the reading work that we do. We read in class every day, students are expected to read 30 minutes at home each day, and I challenge them to finish 50 books in a school year. And each year I have been impressed with the reading that my students do, and the impact that it has on them. But I still have questions:

  • How do I track what my students are reading?
  • How do I encourage them to move to more difficult texts?
  • How do I know they really read the book? (This one is a question I only get from other people. I know.)
  • How do I assess their progress as readers and thinkers?
  • How do I give them a grade? (Again, external forces are at work here.)

For years, I had used the tracking sheets from Nancie Atwell's In the Middle. I would walk around the room, and write down the book title and page numbers. It gave me some information, and a chance to check in quickly with students. It wasn't amazing, but it did the job, and usually didn't take very long to complete. One year I took points away for any night that students didn't read, but usually I didn't.

Then I read Penny Kittle's Book Love (I also talk about it here), and in it I read the most obvious thing: She has the students fill out the clipboard.


Me walking around the room writing down numbers, trying not to interupt a table full of kids reading, doesn't do much for a student. A reader, on the other hand, finding her name and book title, looking at yesterday's page number, and adding today's? That's 30 seconds of "Wow, I read a lot" or "Man, I need to step on it." And since we set individual goals and read individual books, it didn't mean anything for students to see what someone else read. Maybe she had hockey practice. Maybe he was babysitting. Day to day progress didn't matter because we only checked totals once a week, and on those days I held the clipboard.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The other change I made after reading Book Love (and after discussing it in a Facebook group) is in how we set individual reading goals. I knew (or thought I knew) that I was supposed to do this with my students, but it honestly never worked like it should to set goals at the quarter. It was an idea that I needed to let rest for a time. Instead, when school started again in January, we started by reading for ten minutes, counting the pages read, and multiplying to get both an hourly rate and a weekly goal (based on 3 hours of reading outside of class). At first I just had students use a blank page in their reader's notebooks, but eventually they all made and filled in charts that look like this:

This student has excellent taste in books.

On the left page, students wrote the date, their Monday title, and the pages that they read in 10 minutes. The next column is their projected hourly rate (x6), and the last is their goal for the week (hourly rate x 3). While I think it could ultimately be useful to measure how their rates change over time (and Kittle talks about this more in Book Love), I was most interested in a simple way for 30 kids to set goals regularly. This did that. We competed this page first thing on Monday morning.

On the right page, students wrote what they read in a week, either completed or partially finished novels. Students kept a list of finished novels in another location; the above was what they read in a given week. If they read 50 pages of a book and abandoned it, they could write that here to show what they'd been reading even though it didn't count as a finished book. They could not count A Tale of Two Cities or other assigned reading for my class (we also did non-fiction book clubs), though they could count them at the end of the year. In the last column they added up the pages for the week and put that over their goal. This was also completed on Mondays. It's the circled numbers that I would write down.

So on Monday mornings when students entered the room, I would have a version of the above instructions on the board, along with an order to HAVE A BOOK TO READ READY! I would give them time to fill in the right-hand page and add up the previous week's pages. (I would add up my own pages at this point too.) After about ten minutes I would remind them to fill in the left-hand page with their current book and page number and warn them that I was going to start the timer soon. At this point I would also remind them not to use a graphic novel or novel-in-verse to set rates unless they wanted a very high goal. (This was not a mistake that a student made twice.) I told them to read at their usual rate and to stop and reread if they were confused. It wasn't a race. I started a timer, we all read for ten minutes, and then they filled in that week's info.

At some point, I would have also moved the previous week's weekly reading sheets for both classes to my grading clipboard (which is a fancy way of saying the clipboard where I stick class lists and any list of scores until they go in the computer) and put out new blank sheets. After we read for ten minutes I would start around the empty clipboard while I walked around with the previous week's full one. There was one empty column left, a slightly larger one, and I would write the student's total over the goal just like in the example above. Often this happened without comment (many students would immediately go back to reading after filling out the records) and sometimes a conversation happened. I could ask why a student had such a low or high page count for a week, or we could both look at a pattern over several weeks and wonder what had to change.

The student in the photo above, for example, did much better on this spread than she did in the winter when she was on a travel team. One Monday when I walked around and we both noticed that she had missed her goal yet again, I asked what she thought wasn't working. She admitted that she didn't put the time in and that she would do better. The reality is that without checking regularly, both of us could have made it through the entire hockey season without realizing that she had only read a single book. (It is one thing to always know what kids are reading and another thing to realize that a book hasn't changed in a long time. Things get past us.) When I asked a different student why she so often missed her goal, she said that she could never get as much read at home as she did at school. We discussed reasons, namely the distraction of two younger brothers. Comparing what she could read without distraction with what she read with distraction allowed this student to think in a concrete way about her study habits.

I also used the weekly goal to assign a score. Our school allowed parents to access the online gradebook for the first time this year, and I needed a way to quantify each week's reading. (If it were up to me, I would never assign a letter grade to anything, but that's not the world we live in.) I made each week's reading worth 20 points, and if you met your goal, you received full credit. Miss it by fewer than 20 pages, 18 points; more than 20 pages was 16 points. By the time we started this in January, I required students to read 100 pages each week regardless of their rate on Monday, and anyone who read fewer than 100 pages in a week only earned 14 points, a C on our grading scale. I never told students this score (they could look it up online), but it was useful to look at over a quarter.

I will almost certainly start this school year doing all of the above, although some students might need to make it their first quarter goal to get up to 100 pages of reading each week. Undoubtedly some parts will change throughout the year, but I was ultimately satisfied that we could set regularly goals without our recordkeeping getting in the way of our reading.

I know I haven't answered all of my own questions, but that's a matter for a different post.

Currently reading: See yesterday, though now I'm reading the second book in the duo.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Mondays?

I am, as a rule, not a fan of homework on the weekends. In truth, I'm not a fan of homework at all; I avoid using the term with students and would love to banish it from our vocabularies. I'm the teacher no one will look at in a faculty meeting when someone says: "First graders need homework because. . . "

In my class, students are expected to read from their independent reading book for 30 minutes every day, though I base their score on three total hours of reading, so there's a little wiggle room. They memorize 5-10 countries on a map each week; last year this culminated in a four-continent final. They take notes on current events articles and write practice sentences. Anything assigned one day and due the next is typically very brief, such as "Finish your imitation of sentence 3 for tomorrow." Almost all longer writing assignments are completed in class. And they read from A Tale of Two Cities.

A Tale of Two Cities was originally published in 31 installments, so that's how we read it. I handed out sheets at the beginning of the year with the installment number and corresponding book and chapter numbers and titles (there are 3 books in the novel). I left a blank column for students to fill in due dates. There were a few weeks, especially at the start, when we skipped a week. This was usually because I, for whatever reason, wasn't ready. In May we read twice each week, on Mondays and Thursdays, in part to finish before end-of-the-year nonsense celebrations took over our lives and in part because the plot moves really quickly at that point. Upon reflection, even with more time to spare, I would still double up the installments those last 2-3 weeks.

The expectation, for the most part, was that students would read the assigned chapter(s) on their own and answer the prompt before class on Monday. (Some parents, especially in the beginning of the year, read with their child. I kind of loved this. This really helped a few kids, although one student complained that his mom and dad were so excited about the book that he had no idea what they were talking about most of the time.) Because it is a challenge to even comprehend the novel for most 8th graders, most prompts were comprehension questions ("Who fights in this chapter and why?") When I could, I also included a more challenging question, and students who really liked TOTC and/or were planning to take honors in high school were encouraged to answer that as well. A complete answer was 3-5 sentences (most wrote fewer), and full credit required a quote from the text. I posted the prompt after discussion on Mondays, and it was due, online, by 6pm Saturday. (I did this to discourage procrastination, and to allow me time to look over responses before class. In reality, I didn't have time to check on Sundays and rarely penalized students who completed the work by Sunday evening.)

It was important to me that we were consistent in our TOTC day, especially since we only worked with the novel once a week. And since we were often reading an additional book as a read-aloud, I didn't want TOTC to be something we studied midweek. Fridays were already busy with any culminating experiences for the week, and also had the most attendance issues due to students on travel teams, so Monday it was.

Which left me with the problem of assigning work, difficult work, on the weekend.

I'm fortunate that last year I had a teaching partner (she did two days each week of test prep and grammar) who is very experienced with middle schoolers and has a son who attends the Jesuit high school we feed into. She told me that the reality is that they will have work on the weekends in high school, sometimes lots of work, and we need to start preparing them for that. I have a tough time with doing something I disagree with just to support the next guy who is doing something I disagree with, but the high school culture isn't something I have much power to change. I hated the idea of a student struggling with Dickens, alone, on a Sunday night (this seems like an invitation to use the Internet badly), but I couldn't see a different way.

Students, however, had six days to do the reading. I allowed them to read A Tale of Two Cities during independent reading time, especially for those who wanted to get started right after discussion. The few who took advantage of this were the same ones who finished early in the week. It couldn't count toward their weekly reading goal, but the reality was that nobody wanted to read it if they could choose to read their own book, so it didn't cut into their reading time later in the week. My teaching partner ran an after school study session in my room for students who struggled with organization and time management, and a number of students would voluntarily stay to work on Dickens, either together or with teacher help. This was an assignment almost every single week, so I forgot just didn't apply. (I mean, it happened, but I wasn't sympathetic.) And some kids actually preferred to work on it during the weekend when they could dedicate a block of time to it. A few students, of course, tried to look up answers online, which was very obvious since I made up the prompts, and others failed to complete it most weeks. This was also obvious, even to the other students, but the majority of them muddled through most of the time, and it definitely got easier as the year went on.

Although I'm planning to change the way students respond each week, both before and after we read, Monday will still be our Tale of Two Cities day. Some students will be ready Wednesday, and others will wake up Monday and think oh crap!

I can live with that.

Currently reading: Undecided. I have several longer reads going, but I'm not sure what today's #bookaday will be.
That last statement is a lie. I'm reading Courtney Milan. Her books are awesome, but the cover of this particular title isn't quite teacher-blog friendly. So there it is.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why Installments?

I spent the first five summers of my teaching career earning my Master of Arts in English at Bread Loaf; if I could continue to spend every summer there I would. Each spring, a letter would arrive telling us our two courses for the summer and recommending that we, if possible, complete all the reading before arriving on campus.

Hilarious, right?

Of course, this was actually possible for teachers who lived in states that ended their school years early in May, but I taught in Washington state at the time, and school for me would typically end the Wednesday or Thursday before the Tuesday that I had to report to campus. Reading a dozen or so classic novels during the last several months of school just wasn't going to happen.

One year, however, I'd signed up for a course called Fictions of Finance, and when I looked through the reading list, there were some familiar texts (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald) and some unfamiliar ones (The Financier by Theodore Dreiser). Then there was this:

I'll admit it: When I saw Anthony Trollope's The Prime Minister on that list, I was scared. That novel is a brick. (I just went to check how many pages are in the copy I used, and was surprised to discover only 432. This didn't feel right, and it wasn't; when I flipped through the pages, I remembered that it's two volumes, and the second starts over at page one, a cruel trick that fooled me when I first read it. It's 381+386, not including notes.) And so, for the only time in my graduate career, I set out to finish a book before the summer started.

Between March and May of 2002, I spent a few evenings each week at the Sixth and Pine Starbucks (the closest store with easy parking and good seating), reading an hour or two of Trollope. I know the dates because I wrote them in my book. I scribbled a family tree on the title page, underlined passages in pencil with brief notes, and even marked a few pages with post-its. It was a deeply satisfying experience to spend two months slowly working my way through a text, and when it was time to discuss the book in class, I was one of the few who actually liked it because I hadn't tried to cram it in over a weekend in July.

Ten years later, the experience stuck with me, and when I thought about teaching Charles Dickens, and about teaching it in installments, I remembered those evenings with Trollope. I didn't kid myself that my 8th graders would have some kind of sublime experience while struggling through A Tale of Two Cities, but were there advantages to taking it slow, even super-slow? Dickens, of course, originally both wrote and published the novel in installments; he published the first before the last was written. Cliffhangers, for example, are built into the text at several points along the way, encouraging readers to go back and buy a new issue the following week. What value would there be in reading the text at the same pace that it was read in 1859?

It was an experiment, and our rules were simple. We would follow Dickens' original publication schedule (available online and in several editions of the text), reading one to two chapters each week. We would discuss our reading on the first day of the school week, meaning we didn't skip it if we had Monday off, though we took a break for longer vacations. I posted a prompt on Edmodo early in the week, and students were expected to respond, privately, before the weekend was over. It was okay if the response was "I don't know what the heck is going on." We typically spent no more than 30 minutes on discussion; as the year went on, I forced myself to stay within that time limit. Sometimes I gave them time to work on the next week's installment in class, sometimes I didn't. A fair amount of 'discussion' was me, projecting my copy on the screen, pointing out what I thought was important ("Highlight this passage."). Other times, particularly when we were discussing the characters, the discussion would be lively, with students picking teams ("TeamJarvis! TeamCarton!") (For those of you who haven't read it in a while, Jarvis Lorry was never really part of the love triangle.).

There's much more to say, but this post is already long enough. Do you have specific questions? I'll expand on some of the above in a later post.

Currently reading: Middlemarch by George Eliot
Why I'm reading it: Because after spending a year reading and rereading A Tale of Two Cities each week, I decided to finally read Middlemarch, slowly, bit by bit. I only read a chapter or two at a time.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Books to Preorder

I have been very fortunate recently to read many galleys of upcoming YA and MG releases. Here are a few that you should preorder from your local indie:

More than anything, Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan made me think of Tony Kushner's masterpiece Angels in America. Against the backdrop of two former boyfriends trying to set the world record for longest kiss, Levithan tells many stories of gay youth today, all watched over by a Greek chorus of the generation of gay men that died of AIDS. Powerful, powerful reading.
Order this for: Readers who want to know how much the world has changed in a generation.
Available: August 27, 2013

DJ Schwenk is one of my favorite all-time characters, and I'm thrilled that Catherine Gilbert Murdock is returning to her world with this middle grade novel, Heaven is Paved with Oreos. This time, the story is narrated by Sarah Zorn, Curtis Schwenk's "girlfriend" and science fair partner. I very much hope this is only the first of many books about Sarah and Curtis.
Order this book for: Smart girls who care about more than just boys.
Available: September 3, 2013

Surprised that Holly Black hadn't written a vampire book yet? I was. Check out this awesome trailer for more details.
Order this for: Readers who can't get enough of vampires.
Available: September 3, 2013

When the paintings at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris come to life, Julien must find a way to save them and the girl that walled out of one of them and into his arms.
Order this book for: Your artists.
Available: September 3, 2013

Living with Jackie Chan is a companion to Jo Knowles' terrific novel, Jumping Off Swings. Josh is still reeling from the events of Jumping Off Swings, and he has exiled himself from his friends and family, choosing to spend his senior year of high school with his Jackie-Chan-loving uncle, Larry.
Order this for: Students preparing to start or leave high school.
Available: September 10, 2013

A.S. King is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. This is a book people will be talking about this fall.
Order this for: Teens who feel misunderstood. So, basically, all of them.
Available: October 22, 2013

Finishing school for lady assassins. Enough said. (This is the second book in the series.)
Order this for: Readers who like their werewolves and vampires with a steampunk flair.
Available: November 5, 2013

Matt de la Peña is a favorite, and what I loved most about The Living is that he remains true to his roots as a storyteller even as he takes this novel in an entirely new direction. His main character, Shy, will happily remind readers of some of his earlier leads, but the stakes are much higher in this action-packed story.
Order this for: Readers who love a realistic look at what an apocalypse might look like.
Available: November 12, 2013

Space travel. A mysterious planet. A forbidden romance. Dual narrators. Survival against impossible odds. These Broken Stars by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner has all of these things.
Order this for: Students who like books set in space, especially boys who can get past the cover. The hero is a soldier/war hero.
Available: December 10, 2013

Roomies took me right back to that summer before college, waiting to meet my roommate for the first time. Two girls, strangers, exchange emails over the course of one eventful summer.
Order this for: Students going away to school.
Available: December 24, 2013


Why Gallagher and Kittle?

If you teach middle or high school readers, then you need to read these books.

It's impossible for me to talk about teaching reading to 8th graders without referencing Kelly Gallagher's Readicide and Penny Kittle's Book Love. While other texts have shaped my teaching of middle schoolers, these are the two that have most influenced how I balance the texts in my classroom, and what I think about when I picture my students as high school freshmen.

My students are lucky. When they graduate 8th grade, they typically choose between two excellent Catholic high schools (one Jesuit, one all girls) and a top tier public high school. Students and their parents have a variety of reasons for choosing one over the others: the public high school is the largest by far, the theology requirement at the Jesuit school makes summer school pretty much mandatory, the appeal of single-sex education. But none of these schools, to my thinking, are particularly progressive when it comes to reading. Choice reading is pretty much done after they leave my classroom.

Several quotes jump off the pages as I flip back through my copy of Readicide:

  • "Challenge all students with difficult text." (57)
  • "Recognize the difference between liking a text and gleaning value from a text." (57)
  • (Under "In developing recreational readers, teachers must. . .") "always keep the 50/50 Approach in mind. Do not allow recreational reading to be drowned in a tsunami of academic reading. Maintain a balance between the kinds of reading your students do. Place a higher value on fun reading." (117)

In the past, I have used Gallagher's 50/50 Approach (his recommended balance between what he calls recreational and academic reading) as a marker in my own classroom, where I balance between what I call independent reading and literature. Since I teach middle school, I have set that ratio at 70/30 or 60/40 depending on the grade I'm teaching. I remind myself that it doesn't matter if students like every text that I use with them as long as they "glean value" from reading it. It's okay to read hard things, but always, always, keep fun/recreational/choice/whatever-you-want-to-call-it at the center of the reading classroom. I'm constantly searching for the "sweet spot" that Gallagher talks about between over- and underteaching a text (90-91). I never let other priorities interfere with reading time at school or at home.

A Tale of Two Cities was the last book I finished in 2012; Penny Kittle's Book Love was the first in 2013. (Yes, this means I hadn't finished TOTC when I started reading it with my students. I know, I know. I did, of course, already know how it ended.) My students and I had read the first 10 installments of TOTC before the break. Reading Book Love reinforced for me that the independent reading that my students were doing would be more important than anything they learned from Dickens. Kittle writes in her book about building stamina, about preparing students for the hundreds of pages of reading that they would need to do each week in college. Likewise, I knew that my students would need to read a lot in high school, and that almost none of it would be of their own choosing. While their experience with TOTC would help with decoding difficult vocabulary and convoluted sentences, it was the hours they spent engrossed in Elizabeth Eulberg's The Lonely Hearts Club or T. M. Goeglein's Cold Fury that would prepare them for the volume of reading they would do in the future. Nobody gets faster at reading while reading Dickens. With this in mind, I could continue to share an installment of A Tale of Two Cities with my students each week without decreasing our independent reading goals by even one book.

How we did this, of course, is the subjects of its own post entirely.

Currently reading: Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies by Chris Kluwe
Why I'm reading it: Umm, did you see the title? Sparkleponies!

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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why Dickens?

I had several reasons for deciding to use A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens with my 8th graders. Years ago I had read this article in English Journal about teaching Great Expectations over the course of a school year, and I had always wanted to try that approach. I had dropped Call of the Wild and Tom Sawyer from the 8th grade curriculum when I took it over and only kept whichever Shakespeare play I felt like teaching. We had moved To Kill A Mockingbird to 7th grade. Parents and administrators were generally happy with our progress, but I would still occasionally get that look that asked why I wasn't teaching more real books. We had also combined our reading and writing courses with social studies, and were working toward an integrated course that we called humanities, which meant that every choice was up in the air, and so I was looking for readings that supplemented our study of history, government, geography, and current events.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

I would like, at this point, to claim that my proposed 8th grade humanities theme of Revolution led me directly to A Tale of Two Cities, but I totally missed the obvious. Instead, I knew that I couldn't teach Great Expectations because the high schools teach it pretty regularly. (After this first year, I realize that reading the book twice wouldn't actually be a bad thing in the long run, and might be awesome, but that's a topic for another post.) I picked TOTC because most of Dickens' books were too long, even for a year-long course. It was only later that I realized that the conflicts that led to the French Revolution, and even the idea of a revolution itself, would fit perfectly with the other themes of our course.

And why, ultimately, did I decide to add Dickens after years of choice, YA, and more choice? Honestly, I did it to shut people up stop the questions. Because no matter what the kids' test scores were (very high), no matter how many placed into honors (a lot), and no matter how many 14-year-old boys embraced reading reading and more reading, I was still getting questions, and I knew that telling people we were going to read Dickens would stop the questions.

And it did.

Now the challenge was to read it without killing all the things that were already working in our classroom.

Currently reading: Thirst by Mary Oliver
Why I'm reading it: Because she's one of my favorite poets. And today, as I struggle to understand last night's verdict, seems like a day for poetry.

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Why Classics?

When I was a high school teacher, I taught primarily using classic novels. When I switched to middle school, I taught middle grade and young adult novels. When I was moved to 8th grade three years ago, I knew that I had to find a way to bridge the gap between my own beliefs about choice reading and the traditional reality that my students would face at our local high schools. I stripped out the classics I disliked, kept the Shakespeare play that I did like, and added a ton of independent reading. Last year we read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. We read an installment each week for the entire year, following Dickens' own publication schedule.

I get mixed results when I tell friends and colleagues about TOTC. Some are enthusiastic and curious, while others roll their eyes or share their own awful experiences with the novel in school. It'll be at least a year before my former students can return to tell me if their experience with Dickens helped them navigate their first year of high school classes. And as I think about how (and why) to use TOTC in my classroom this year, and as I wonder how I would handle a return to teaching high school, I'm left with the following questions:

  • Why include classic novels in our classrooms?
  • How should we use them with our students if we do include them?
  • What barriers keep teachers from using classic novels?

I'll share my own answers in a later post.

Currently reading: The Arrivals by Melissa Marr.
Why I'm reading it: Because she is awesome. And it's a western. Kind of.

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