Thursday, October 24, 2013

The best seat in the room

Last year I was looking for something to sit on while working with students, and I didn't want to drag around one of our surprisingly heavy student chairs. I decided to try a $12 camping/fishing stool that I ordered online. I didn't always remember to pull it out last year, so this year I permanently placed it next to my tech setup near the SmartBoard, and we use it all the time.

Need to sit down to type something on the SmartBoard? Use the camping stool.

The great thing about using the camping stool instead of a podium or a student desk is that I didn't want a permanent feature in front of the SmartBoard. The SmartBoard isn't the center of our classroom, and I didn't want to be pulled to constantly teach from that location.

I love the tables in my classroom, and the camping stool makes it easy to join a group of students, or just meet with one, even if every chair is filled. In the past, I had twice as many chairs as I did students so that every student could have a seat in home room; now I have only four chairs per table, and the stool moves around to create an extra seat when I want to join a table.

Need to have a quick reading conference with a student while he's reading in the Adirondack chair? Pull up a camping stool. (Reading conference=speculating in nerdy detail about a book cover for the book everyone is reading.)
Used the stool for that purpose just yesterday.
Need to meet with a small group? Camping stools.

(I'm embarrassed by the state of this table. In my defense, it gets cleared off each day. This is mid-class.) Obviously, our stools have multiplied. Once per week the entire 8th grade (26 students) has class together in this room, and sometimes they have lunch in here, so we needed to be able to seat 26 without cluttering up the room with extra chairs. I usually keep four stools in the room (one in front and three at this table), but we've had them all out since we've been eating lunch in the classrooms a lot. Yesterday during reading time, a girl lined four of them up like an army cot and stretched out to read. Eighth graders are funny.

We're all big fans of our $15 Adirondack chair (it's very comfortable), and we have one yoga ball/stability chair that causes a minor stampede at class changes, but this year's most valuable classroom chair definitely goes to the camping stool. That was $12 well-spent.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


When I first decided to do NaNoWriMo with students four years ago, I used a stealth approach. "We're going to write novels," I whispered, hoping the kids wouldn't notice and freak out.

Now, as we approach our fifth year, it's a regular topic of discussion in the hallways between 7th and 8th graders. "What are you going to write about?" students ask each other. "Miss Kelley, are you going to write a novel?" they ask me as we stand in line for lunch.

In 8th grade we started prepping our novels last Friday. We've been using some of the lessons and ideas found on the YWP website, and I've printed out some of the planning materials. (They did the entire workbook last year.) We've been meeting on our imaginary rug to discuss characters, conflicts, and plot, and then breaking into groups to plan imaginary group novels and to work on individual planning.

That was the plan for yesterday. I wanted to replace some middle school level handouts with high school materials, and then send them off to work on plot. Instead, a student asked about my novel, and I shared my idea, and we spent the remainder of the period sharing our ideas for NaNoWriMo. And it was terrific.

I knew when I decided to answer the question that it would totally throw off our timing. We were already running late because new books arrived during lunch, and nothing was more important than distributing Allegiant immediately. But that twenty minutes of sitting in a circle, sharing ideas, was just as valuable as twenty minutes working independently (or, more likely, trying to read Allegiant without getting caught).

I began by sharing my novel idea, and even told students that I'm going to rewrite from scratch my novel from two years ago. I told them that I got so far behind that year that I wrote over 35,000 words between the end of NCTE Chicago and the end of Thanksgiving break (basically, four days). I asked students what they were going to write, and they shared their plans. There were suggestions for similar books and ideas, questions that helped with plots holes, and plenty of laughs.

In my experience, NaNoWriMo does as much for my students' reading as it does for their writing. When they try to DO as writers something they've done so many times as readers, they really start to understand how story works.

It also leads to conversations like this one:

Female student: "My novel has three main characters, and it's from all their points of view, and they're all antagonists to each other. Does that work?"
Me: "Yeah, sure. I mean Voldemorte is the protagonist of his own story, right.? He doesn't wake up each day and say I'm the antagonist."
Various replies, including a boy who I know wants to argue that Voldemorte does wake up and want to be the antagonist.
Me: "And sometimes, the antagonist and the protagonist can switch places. Like in Stars Wars, Darth Vader is the antagonist in the original trilogy but the protagonist in the prequels. Spoiler alert."
Male student: "Oh, man, I haven't read them yet."
Another male student: "They're movies."
Me: "That came out in the 1970's."
Male student: "Oh. I just figure everything comes from a book."

You can't plan for conversations like that.


Monday, October 21, 2013

End of Quarter

I haven't posted in over a week due to travel, lack of sleep, a cold, chaos, and extreme grouchiness. When I wake up in the morning and can only think about how cranky I am, writing about teaching isn't a good idea. And yes, a flight that got in at midnight on a school night had a lot to do with how cranky I was. The trip was worth it, but exhausting.

Yes, I did fly out for a football game.
An afternoon on the boat was just a bonus.

This is the last week of first quarter. Next week we have 8th grade conferences for two nights, a day off, Halloween, and the first day of NaNoWriMo. Last week we finished our first read-aloud, Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and students took their first continent test, Europe. We have finished our study of the French Revolution, and we're now learning about the Haitian Revolution. For geography we're going to study the Caribbean and Central and South America. On Friday we started prepping for NaNoWriMo by creating characters; today we're going to talk about conflict. It was perfect timing to finish Dairy Queen last week because it gives us a novel that we all know really well to use as our example when we discuss elements of novels. They are begging to read the second book next, and I'm going to give in, but not until next week at the earliest. I actually think The Off Season is even better than Dairy Queen, so I'm glad they've embraced the series. And it actually works to leave the other read-alouds I've planned until after the holidays.

One new thing that I've done this year that is making my life easier is that we marked the reading and writing notebooks with colored electrical tape. I worried that this would be a waste of materials, but it's actually really helpful when I'm looking for reading responses to just grab the green and yellow notebooks. So simple, but it saves a few minutes every week.

Of course I straightened this up before I took this picture. 8th graders aren't this neat.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Excitement

This past weekend I was lucky enough to purchase a copy of a highly-anticipated new book a few days early. I took it to school with me yesterday, and when it was time to set our reading rates for the week, I wrote the title on the board and waited for someone to notice what I was reading.

At the end of each school day I hold open one of the exits doors and say goodbye to students as they leave. Yesterday I was the only one available right at 3 to do this, so I stood next to the door reading my new book in the minutes before school ended, and I held the book in my hand, cover facing out, as the students exited the building. And I waited.

Sure enough, in both instances students noticed what I was reading, and I was mobbed by eager readers. How'd you get that? Is it good? Can I see it? Seventh grade boys who had been annoyed with me at recess because I wouldn't let them lasso each other with a jump rope and a hula hoop suddenly wanted to be best friends.

These weren't accidents on my part. I wasn't trying to be cool, although I'm always glad for students to know that I'm reading what they're reading. What I wanted in this case was to keep building the buzz about books and reading in my school. I wanted to remind students that a new book was coming in their favorite series. I wanted them to go home and beg for a copy. I wanted the dozens of parents who stood nearby to see a teacher with a book, to see students, boys even, eagerly asking a teacher about a book.

Try it. Carry a new book down the hall. Let students see you reading their favorite. They'll notice.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Reading Their Writing

I love reading what my students write.

I hate assigning a grade to what my students write.

Unfortunately, refusing to assign grades is not an option. I did stop using rubrics last year, and I don't regret it.

Here's how I handle 'grading' writing now: I read and respond, sometimes marking corrections and always writing a note with what works and what needs improvement. I make a note for myself about one or two writing issues for each student. Writing then falls into one of three categories. Great/You're Done means any changes are minor or just suggestions. I enter 90% in the gradebook. You should redo this/Recommended Redo means the writing should be stronger or there are some mistakes with things we're still practicing in class. The score is an 80%. Required Redo means there are the kinds of obvious mistakes that 8th graders shouldn't be making, or a lack of effort is obvious in the writing. This means the writing doesn't meet the minimum standard for the assignment. The score is 70%. Students can redo any assignment, especially writing, as many times as they need to.

Some of this, of course, is specific to my school and my students. Our grading scale doesn't include pluses or minuses, so a 90% is an A. Although this means an 80% is a B, most students hate having a score that low and will redo it. No one finds a 70% acceptable, so they'll redo that too. And I only have 26 students total this year, so reading student work multiple times is not an impossible task.

This year I'll assign a deadline for resubmitting work, probably a week after the paper is returned to students, and the new grade erases the old one. At times I'll still have too many papers to read, but I can never complain given our class sizes. I remember clearly what it was like to have 150 students and 100+ papers.

How do you handle grading writing?

Thursday, October 3, 2013


Yesterday in class we talked about Prussia (or Parooozha as one of my students called it).
You won't find Prussia on either of these maps.

They were looking up international crises faced by the French government between 1789 and 1799. This led to yet another reminder that Europe looked very different two hundred years ago, and that where they have to label individual countries, I wrote USSR and Yugoslavia. This led to a discussion about Europe before World War I, so we looked at a map of Europe in 1914, which led us to question the difference between Holland and the Netherlands. I said that the history of the Netherlands probably would not be a unit of study in our class, which led to many jokes about different small countries that we could study ("I'm very excited for our study of Andorra, Miss Kelley!").

We have also spent a fair amount of time discussing sentences like "I do not like green peppers, nor do I like cucumbers." Our question is: Why do you invert the verb and the subject after nor? I have asked all the cranky grammarians in my life, and other teachers, including the Latin teacher. No one knows for sure. We have guesses, but no solid answers. My students know how to write the sentence, but we don't really know why. (Also, I get that it's a weird construction. They were practicing coordinating conjunctions.)

I like that we have these discussions in my classroom. I like that my students understand that sometimes I don't know. I like that we are learning and discovering together. I like that we ask questions. We looked up Prussia in 1790 on my computer, then moved to the more current world map on the wall to figure out where it would be today.

They won't remember which French government invaded Egypt and which was threatened by the King of Prussia, but they'll remember to ask good questions.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Our Room Right Now

Classroom shut down for weekend visitors.

This is what our classroom looks like right now.

First time in many years with wall space. It's awesome.

And here is some of what we've learned so far. Each chart begins with a conversation at the easel while the students sit on the imaginary rug. I write a messy list on paper, we talk about what it means, and students go and put it into practice. Later, I copy the list out neatly, and they write it in their notebooks.

The imaginary rug is new this year. It will hopefully become a real rug at some point. We've used it for both reading (I sit in the plastic Adirondack chair) and for mini-lessons. I think it helps to physically move to a new location (we have an 84-minute block and a separate 40-minute class most days) with no distractions. Usually they don't even bring a notebook. It helps for me to set the timer (we call it "setting the chicken" because it's a cheap chicken timer from a discount store and because we think it's funny when I say "I'm going to set the chicken for ten minutes"). Setting the timer reminds me not to let the lesson get too long, and it signals students that I value their time. We'll talk for ten minutes, it says, and then I'll give you time to practice what we've talked about.

Our space will continue to evolve, as it should, but we're happy in our new classroom. We're ready to learn.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities: "The Wine-Shop"

Yesterday, we discussed chapter 5, "The Wine-Shop". Here's my 4-panel graphic adaptation:

Again, apologies to all my former art teachers.

(I especially like my Madame Defarge.)

"The Wine-Shop" is a pivotal chapter in book one. We travel to France for the first time. We meet the Defarges, and the Jacques. We finally see Doctor Manette and his shoes. Because we have spent the last month studying the French Revolution, my students weren't surprised by the poverty described in the chapter's opening pages. A man writes the word BLOOD on the wall, and my students understood when I had them mark the line that follows: "The time was to come, when that wine too would be spilled on the street-stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there."

Most of yesterday was me telling them what to mark and translating the chapter into something they'd understand. I rushed them. We had limited time, and last week I went long, and they didn't have time to process what I said afterward. Yesterday I was determined to finish discussing (talking) so they could have 10-15 minutes to work. They drew spilled casks of wine, and three Jacques talking to Monsieur Defarge, and a man making shoes. (My favorite was a man making shoes with a big smile on his face. One thing I especially like about drawing afterwards is that it's easy to laugh with a student about the fact that the shoemaker probably isn't smiling.)

Our Monday discussions can't always be me telling them what's important. Eventually, they will need to interpret the book independently. Learning to read a book like this on their own, and to discuss it in class, will be essential in high school.

But we're not there yet.