Monday, September 30, 2013

How much is too much?

Here are my plans for this week:

I have been wondering if I am trying to do too much with my 8th graders. One challenge of teaching humanities instead of a single subject is that it is largely up to me to balance the subjects within the thirteen periods each week that I teach each section. The plan above represents my attempt to balance the sheer number of minutes that I spend on each area, even if I inevitably end up adjusting the times. (The above schedule doesn't fully convey the number of interruptions that this particular week will have, for example.)

This week we are primarily wrapping up some work and continuing some longer projects. We'll finish our study of the French Revolution this week, and I would like the students to write a short reflection about what they learned. I also need to know about their experience with the text and its accompanying materials so that I can plan our next unit. We'll need to keep our French Revolution knowledge close enough that we can access it when we get to that point in A Tale of Two Cities. We're on chapter 5 in that book, and students will draw another 4-panel graphic adaptation for their notebooks, along with their standing assignment of one independent reading reader response and next week's chapter of TOTC.

We need to pick up the pace in writing. Writing workshop is getting bumped around by the schedule, and I need to reconsider when I schedule it. On the other hand, our work in reading and history gives us even more to write about, so perhaps it is right for writing to begin to pick up now. I have students who are ready for fancy grammar, and students who need more time with less fancy concepts. I need time to meet with both groups.

Yet as I worked on the above plans yesterday, and scheduled the accompanying assignments in edmodo, I wondered if I was overdoing it. Fourteen assignments in one week, even if almost all of it happens in class? How much is too much?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Obvious Stuff

For several years, the first rule of editing in my classroom was "Obvious stuff." I think I took this term from Nancie Atwell. At some point, I realized that what was obvious to me was not obvious to 14-year-olds, and the Obvious Stuff chart was born.

Our messy list created in class.

I think my first list years ago was longer, but this is the list we made in class together this week. The other section came up with a remarkably similar list. Later today I will rewrite this more neatly and clarify each item.

Like our "Old Rules for Commas" list, these are items that need to become automatic. Students need to be able to follow these conventions on timed writings. As an adult, they'll be expected to follow these rules in work emails. Mistakes with obvious stuff can kill a job application.

(Quick aside: One of my 8th graders asked if I follow all the conventions in text messages. I said I do, to the point of using semicolons while texting. She expressed her frustration with this. She said she hates it when people waste time with periods in text messages. Not that she's too lazy, or can't remember, but that she thinks the convention of texting should be no end punctuation, just keep writing. It's something to think about.)

For me, though, the beauty of Obvious Stuff is that it forces me to make explicit some of the things that we as teachers tend to assume that everyone should know how to do. When we were making the chart, one student suggested punctuation, and I talked her around to end punctuation. End punctuation, we all agreed, should be obvious. Commas are not.

Are there conventions in your classroom that are obvious only to you? It's something to consider.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities (with pictures!)

Here are the results of our first two weeks studying A Tale of Two Cities:

The first week was a four-panel summary, and this week was a character profile.
Students could either draw Lucie Manette or Jarvis Lorry.
I encouraged them to use details from the text.
Students love that Mr. Lorry is vain about his legs.
Note the red cheeks: Mr. Lorry drank a bottle of wine with dinner.
When we're done, we walk around and look at everyone's work.
If I'm going to ask them to draw and share their work, then I'm going to do the same.

Next week, we meet Madame Defarge. . . I can't wait to see what her profile looks like. Also, I just realized we'll have to draw Sydney Carton and Charles Darney side-by-side as twins-but-not. I like that idea.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities and the French Revolution

Yesterday we discussed the second installment of A Tale of Two Cities. The book, of course, remains a struggle, but our work learning about the French Revolution (and French society during that time more generally) definitely helps.

The chapter we read introduced the central mystery of the novel: Why was Doctor Manette imprisoned in secret for eighteen years? (A student asked during class why Manette was put in prison. I said he would find out in about eight months. Everyone groaned.) As we looked over the paragraph that explained his disappearance, I was able to ask the students what social class Doctor Manette would have belonged to, and what social class would have had enough power to inprison someone in secret without even the king knowing where he was. Students probably still won't guess the culprit in advance, but they'll definitely have a better understanding of the resentment that the peasants felt toward the nobility.

For next Monday we will read chapter five, which begins with a cask of wine spilling in a Paris street. Everyone races to get some, drinking it straight from the ground. A student started the reading in class yesterday, and at first expressed surprise that they would do this. I asked him what he remembered about French peasants in Paris in 1760. He understood.

When we were done yesterday, we drew a picture of either Jarvis Lorry or Lucie Manette. These were glorified stick figures, at least mine was, but what I asked students to do was focus on one paragraph (conveniently, each character got a long one-paragraph physical description) and pull out any details they could find. Partway through I found myself wishing that I had put more requirements on the assignment (use quotes, for example), but then I reminded myself that we're only on our second response. Our ability to process the discussion visually will grow along with our ability to read the novel.

For the rest of the week (we only have three more school days due to a PD day on Friday) we will read and discuss Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, our read-aloud. We will role play a French constitutional convention. We'll take a quiz on FANBOYS and AAAWWUBBIS. We'll take a geography quiz on 10 more countries in Europe. We're already gearing up for our first continent test on October 17. We're writing up a list of the things we loved about 8th grade in August and September. I don't think anyone will out A Tale of Two Cities on that list yet, but maybe by April or May. . .

Thursday, September 19, 2013

It Could Be Worse

Tuesday was one of the more hilarious days of the year in 8th grade humanities.

It was cover-the-grammar-book-with-contact-paper day.

If you've never had students cover their books with contact paper before, then you're in for a treat. Inevitably, someone ends up with the paper wrapped around her arm. Someone folds the paper in on itself. Someone becomes obsessed with air bubbles and compulsively tries to get rid of them. A girl who does everything perfectly will be terrible at this, and a boy will surprise you by being the best in the class. And this will happen:

It's worth the fifteen minutes. The books will have a cover all year, and you will end up only covering three or four books (you'll take pity on a few kids) instead of twenty or thirty. A memory will be made. Whenever you need to have your students do something difficult, just remind them of the contact paper.

They'll stop complaining.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Oh, reading logs

Last night, my third grade friend had this sitting with his homework folder:

I can't believe teachers think this is good practice.

I had never actually seen one in the wild before.

I've known this third grader his entire life. The bookstore knows him by name. He and his sisters will sit still and listen to piles of books. He acts out Elephant & Piggie for his youngest sister. This piece of paper does nothing for him as a reader.

I didn't say this to him, of course, but I said it to his parents. It's bad practice. It doesn't tell his teachers who he is as a reader, and he's hardly likely to master vocabulary or understand character because he filled in all the lines in a box. The assignment is about the log, not the reading itself. This can only have a negative impact on his identity as a reader. I will prescribe more Babymouse videos as an antidote.

Yesterday in 8th grade we worked on independent reading responses. I'm never where I want to be with this. I love writing back and forth with students about what they're reading, but I inevitably end up far behind in responding. I never want this to be a glorified reading log, but I do want them to do some thinking about what they've read, and I think it's good practice for literary analysis in high school.

My plan this year is to ask for one response each week, about one single-spaced page in their notebooks. Every student has a sheet of mailing labels filled with a variety of prompts. They can stick the prompt at the top of the page, add the title and author (and number of the response) and tell me what they're thinking. This doesn't replace conferring. This doesn't really tell me if they read the book or not, actually. But I think it will be an important part of what we do in class.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities: Before and After

Yesterday was the first due date for A Tale of Two Cities. Last week I read the first chapter out loud to the class, and their assignment was to read chapters two and three (about ten pages) on their own and post any questions to me via edmodo. I emphasized that questions could be extremely basic and include the phrase "what the heck is going on?" Here are some sample responses:
Normally I don't accept this kind of spelling, but it seems fitting here.
There are always a few who like it from day one.

At this point, I really emphasize with students that I want them to keep reading even when the reading is difficult. I want them to practice getting something from the text, even if what they get is "I don't know what's going on!" What I don't want them to do is turn to an online summary for canned answers. I want them to know that they can do this with my help.

This summer I got to hear Terry Thompson (Adventures in Graphica) speak at the All Write Summer Institute in Warsaw, Indiana. One thing I wanted to add this year was a piece of post-reading and discussion reflection. This slide gave me the idea to use drawings after we work on an installment in class.

Yup, talking about books in the band room.

After discussion yesterday (I use the word discussion generously), I handed out white drawing paper, cut to 6 by 8 inches, and told the students to divide the paper into four boxes. In each box, I said, we would draw part of the story. We brainstormed a few ideas (mud, horses, a messenger), and they were off.

As always, my students amaze me.

I was shocked by the lack of complaining. After a few jokes about the difficulty of drawing a horse, they all got busy. There was chatter at each table, but the talk was about the book and their drawings. One student even drew the famous opening lines ("It was the best of times, it was the worse of times. . . "). I asked them to add some color, and they did, using the colored pencils at each table. When I mentioned that we might do something like this each week, someone even said "This was fun!"
That is not the typical reaction to the start of our work with A Tale of Two Cities.
Something I don't want is for this to become language arts and crafts. I think stick figure mental images help us avoid this. They don't get graded on their drawings. I think giving them ten minutes in class to do this had the added benefit of a social component. I love the idea that they can refer back to visual notes when they try to remember what happened earlier in the story. I think that next week we'll do character sketches, so every week won't be exactly the same. I like that I'm asking them to do something different before and after.
And, of course, I do what they do. Somehow, I don't think my drawings will be winning any awards any time soon.
I especially like my stick figure horses.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Friday, September 13, 2013

What We Did at Parent Night

Last night was middle school parent information night. Our parents walked through a modified version of the student schedule, and heard from a variety of teachers and administrators.

I had decided earlier in the week that I didn't want to stand in front of the room talking about rules and procedures.

I was going to give them a quiz. And I did.

This was the more serious group. There were definite shenanigans in the other section.
This was the more serious group. There were definite shenanigans in the other section.

They laughed when I handed them a quiz of the Middle East and North Africa. They tried. There was some "group work". One mom checked the map on the wall. There were many groans when I shared the answer key.

After that, I talked about what we are learning and why. For one group, I only had five parents; in the other, I had about fifteen. (I have 26 students total this year. Unfortunately, a high school scheduled their night for yesterday as well.) We talked about the importance of knowing where places are if you're going to understand people and events. We talked about the French Revolution. Many were surprised and impressed that we're reading A Tale of Two Cities, and others were rightfully concerned about how challenging the book is. I talked about reading and choice and stamina, about kids reading the right books to become better readers. We talked about AAAWWUBBIS and FANBOYS. I told them why the kids write at school and not at home. With one group, I even had time to booktalk Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.

It was a good night.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

Where the Commas Go

Several years ago, a fellow teacher was asked by a parent if her son knew "where the commas go." This was repeated to me later, and I don't remember the details, but that question sticks with me: "Does my child know where the commas go?" It is the kind of question that often gets asked when someone is objecting to writing workshop, or to a lack of grammar worksheets and tests.

At the time, my students and I would joke that there are at least ninety-nine rules for where the commas go. Some are easy, and others are super challenging, some automatic, others up for debate.

Last year I shared grammar duties for 8th grade with another teacher, so to keep things straight we made two charts: Old Rules for Commas and New Rules for Commas. We expected our students to apply the old rules without fail, every single time. Like the editing checklists we had used previously, we expected students to independently find and fix any mistakes related to the old rules. Our other list, the new rules, were the rules we were still learning and practicing. They might get those wrong, but they were working on them. The rules themselves are nothing fancy to start; I know from reading Mechanically Inclined that Jeff Anderson used them with fourth graders. Many students master the new rules quickly, while others need a few more weeks. That's okay.

(An 8th grader close to graduating once confessed to me that he didn't understand the difference between to, too, and two. It happens. It's never a mistake to spend 5 minutes reviewing something you only think everyone already knows.)

Yesterday my students gathered on our imaginary rug, and we made our lists of old and new rules. For now, I kept rules relating to phrases and clauses on the new list; I'm not convinced that those rules are automatic enough for everyone. Our old rules are so basic that I won't feel guilty expecting perfection in using them.

Yes, this is how messy a chart is when I make it in class.

Later today I will take the lists that I made with each section, and make a chart with some details and examples for each rule. Students will copy that chart into their Writer's Notebooks. And when we revise and proofread, I'll point to the old list for commas and say "Make sure you follow these rules!"

Go ahead, pin this. I dare you.

This year I put "new" in quotes. They worked on AAAWWUBBIS and FANBOYS last year, but I want to revisit them before we move on. Each rule will get a page in their notebooks, with examples, and they'll write their own sentences on the facing page, another idea adapted from Mechanically Inclined. This way, when someone doesn't know how to punctuate something, they can either look at the wall or in their notebook. When we start working in our Killgallon book (Grammar for Middle School: A Sentence-Composing for Approach), we'll add those sentence types, and their comma rules, too.

How do you teach commas in your classroom?


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Question

"Miss Kelley, you know those lines you were talking about yesterday?" (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . . ) "Well, I don't see how that was the best of times."

Yesterday we finished looking at the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities. We also starting studying the French Revolution (we're using this). Students read about the class structure in France before the revolution, about peasants and the bourgeoisie and the nobility, and about the divine right of kings. I read aloud Charles Dickens' description of the brutal violence of the time period.

And then a student asked me the question.

Last year, a student asked why the US was prosperous after our independence from Britain when other countries haven't been so lucky. This year, a different student asked about Dickens' famous opening line. Both are questions that you can spend a year answering.

As teachers do, I turned the question back on the class. Was it the best of times? For whom? Was it the best of times for the peasants? What happened to them? Our study of history is lined up with out study of literature, so they had answers.

On our best days, this is what we'll do this year. We'll talk about literature and history. We'll talk about current events (What does a revolution look like today?). We'll compare A Tale of Two Cities to our independent reading (What books have you read that are divided into volumes?). And we'll write about what we've learned.

Third grader reads A Tale of Two Cities.

(Can't get enough? Today I'm also on the Nerdy Book Club reviewing David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing.)


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Too Much

Yesterday I tried to do too much.

It didn't work.

It wasn't a spectacular failure, by any means, but it left us all a bit frazzled, which is never my intention. I rushed both classes through our reading records, and I know a few kids were lost. We glued section pages in our reading notebooks, set up our European continent pages, started A Tale of Two Cities. One class started a narrative writing assessment.

It was too much.

Partly it's the schedule. I see one class six times Monday and Tuesday, and the other class only four times. I'm also responsible for three core subjects (reading, writing, and social studies) over thirteen periods a week. I'm trying to plan carefully to hit the same topics with both classes, and to not neglect a subject. There are, of course, always students that are finished quickly, and students who are still looking for a pen. Even after fifteen years, it's a challenge to plan for both.

We hadn't even made it to lunch before I knew it wasn't working. I took a breath. I told my students that we'd revisit our reading records, and slow it down the next two weeks. I promised we'd talk about A Tale of Two Cities in class again today and Thursday. It was only day nine.

We have time.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Parent Night

This is the only full week of school the 8th graders will have in September.

It's going to be 90+ today and tomorrow. And humid.

This Thursday is the first of two parent nights, and Friday my dad is coming to visit for the weekend.

This first parent night is just for middle school parents, since they visit multiple classes. Next week parents will return to visit all grades (our students start in preschool) and attend a dinner. Typically 8th grade parent attendance drops at nights like these, but I'm predicting that new classrooms combined with many first-time 8th grade parents will lead to a full house.

I like back to school nights like these. I like talking about curriculum and learning. I like talking about books with parents. I like doing all of this without the pressure of grades that sometimes hangs over conferences.

What I don't like is when parents get in my head. You know what I'm talking about. Someone complains, either to you directly or to someone who repeats it you. You start to question yourself ("Should I assign more worksheets?"). You change your plans ("Look, kids, a worksheet! Be sure to take this home to show mom and dad!") Days, weeks, even months pass, and you look around and think "What am I doing?" and you throw all the worksheets in the recycling bin. If you teach in a school with involved parents, then you know what I'm talking about.

I'm undecided about what to say on Thursday. I'll have sixteen minutes since I teach three subjects, and at least some time will need to be spent checking out the new room. I don't want to do what I do every year (expectations, grading scale, homework, attendance policy). They can read that. What I want to do is give them a taste of what really happens in our classroom. We talk about and read books. We write, and learn, and rewrite, and write some more. We study maps. We study the world. And, yes, we try to figure out where the commas go.

Maybe I'll ask the 8th graders what they think we should talk about.


Friday, September 6, 2013

What We Did the First Two Weeks

We don't waste time looking for supplies.

Today is the end of our second week of school. It's actually our eighth day of classes, as we took a four-day weekend for Labor Day, and today is Fall Field Day, so we won't have afternoon classes, but close enough. Here's a partial look at what we've done so far:

  • We have filled the bins on each table with notebooks, colored pencils, rulers, glue sticks, highlighters, and scissors. This means that we have used all of those items. I only had to threaten to take away the rulers once.
  • We have made the classroom our own. I have, for the first time, a variety of chair types in the room, and when it's independent reading time, or gather at the imaginary rug time, students get what they need with a minimum of fuss. It'll only be better when we get a real rug. So far, there hasn't been any crying or fighting over chairs.
  • Every student has been reading a book every day. Given a choice, they always want to keep reading. If I have to make up a standardized assessment with three students, everyone else will read silently with zero fuss. Even last period.
  • Many students are already on their second or third book of the year. They come to me, almost apologetically, saying: "I already finished this. I had some extra time last night."
  • Students are already adventurous readers, willing to check out unfamiliar or challenging titles. No one at this point is stuck in a rut below their level.
  • They all want Champion by Marie Lu to come out. Yesterday.
  • They are already stepping up as school leaders, which is not at all an automatic thing for 8th graders. Today we are joining Catholic schools nationwide to pray for peace. I told the 8th grade yesterday that we had volunteered them to take the lead. We talked about the best way to do this in a crowded gym, and more importantly, how to handle any questions from younger students during Field Day, which will be spent in mixed-grade communities. As the oldest students in their communities, they know how important it is to lead by example, even in something as simple as staying quiet when the prayer ends. We talked about what to say if a kindergartener asks why we prayed. As 8th graders, they know more of the details about Syria, but those aren't the answers for our youngest students. They get that.
  • We made it to our first Friday without any sparkle pony attacks. We remain vigilant.
  • And this happened:

Enjoy your weekend!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Ninety-two Reasons. . . No, not really

My younger friends love Babymouse.

Yesterday I posted part of a homework letter that came home with my best friends' kids. I dislike it for a whole host of reasons, as I said. But in fairness, of course, I don't know the teacher, the school, or even the district very well, and my friends have been pretty happy with the education for their kids. I still don't like several things that letter represents, but I don't want to vilify a stranger on the Internet.

But. . .

I hate homework. I hate the word homework. I hate being told that I don't give enough, and I hate hearing that my students never have any. I would love to banish the word forever, and honestly, I kind of think we need to. "Homework" has become too loaded, too synonymous with busywork. I don't think homework can be saved.

I do, however, assign work to be finished outside of class. I do ask students to memorize countries. I expect them to read fifty books in a year, something that can't be done in school alone. I ask them read Charles Dickens on their own. I ask them to respond to reading, to expand their vocabularies, to study the world around them. All of this requires work outside of class and study hall. A key difference, in my mind, is that I'm asking them to either reflect on something we've done together ("Please answer these questions about today's reading.") or to prepare for a future lesson ("Please read these pages about the French Revolution for Thursday so we can talk about it."). I don't assign group work to be done outside of class. Writing and revising happen in school, for an entirely different set of reasons.

My best friends' kids love books. The older two are reading Harry Potter with their parents; the younger "reads" along with her picture books. Coming home and sprawling on the couch with books from the library, making videos with their new Babymouse toy, watching (again) videos from Mr. Schu's summer road trip. . . These are all better uses of their time than a worksheet so they can build the homework habit.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013


Last night I babysat for my best friends' kids. It was the second week of school, so this came home with them:

Homework. For first graders.

I have 92 things to say about this, but for now, I'll let the video that we made instead speak for itself:


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Talking about. . .

My students love CNN Student News.

Some love watching anything for ten minutes instead of reading or writing, some love the puns that the host makes, and some truly enjoy following the news. I like that international stories get lots of coverage and that the newscast can make use of CNN's deep pockets and vast material. I like that it doesn't talk down to students (much), and that it ignores most local/crime stories that local media are obsessed with. I like that it doesn't follow a story about the humanitarian crisis in Syria with a story about Beyonce lip syncing at the Inauguration. (That was the last time I watched local news. At home I watch the Weather Channel.)

Today, as I made my coffee, somewhat bleary-eyed after a four-day weekend (I'm so not on a school sleep schedule yet), I realized that we would need to talk about Syria this week. We will use the newscast as a resource. I will try to find some articles, and maybe a video or audio of the Secretary of States's address last Friday. I will have to think about what I think, and what it's appropriate to share, and when I need to step back and let my students have their own opinions.

It is a challenge. When I taught high school, I primarily taught seniors, so I shared my opinions freely. Many of my students were eighteen, ready for college or career; many were about to join the military. My opinion did not have undue influence.

Teaching middle schoolers, and teaching them social studies, means that I hold back more. I don't tell them who I'm voting for in elections. I share broad values ("everyone deserves equal protection under the law") while avoiding specifics.

When I am more specific, I am sure to emphasize that something is my opinion, and why I think the way I do. Last week one of the arguments submitted by a student to Student News against military strikes was a need to focus on our economy. That particular logic doesn't work for me; a concern for one does not work for or against the other. I shared that with my classes, not as a pro or con for military strikes, but as a way of thinking through my values. I want them to separate unrelated issues, or at least to have an opinion about intervention before deciding if it's the right choice for our country.

So my thinking for today is this: We will catch up on some news coverage, and I will ask my students to think of the reasons to get involved, and the reasons to stay out. I need them to understand the many sides to an issue before they decide how it aligns with their own beliefs.

We'll see how it goes.

This is why we have so many maps in our classroom.