Monday, July 14, 2014

Three Books You Should Read

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out written and photographed by Susan Kuklin

Beyond Magenta appeared in my tumblr feed in a post about diverse books, so I sought it out at my local bookstore. Author Susan Kuklin interviewed and photographed six transgender teens, and what I liked most about this book is that it is almost entirely the teens telling their own stories. Kuklin occasionally adds some notes for clarity, but otherwise it's the teens' own voices that we hear, some polished, some raw. Some participants are comfortable being photographed, and other aren't. Some teens have read and studied deeply about gender identity, while others engage in gender stereotypes even when discussing their own experiences. I love that about this book.

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

Confession: I don't read much middle grade fiction. In fact, I actively avoid it most of the time. And for some reason, this book was in my mind as middle grade, when in fact it's a book that falls somewhere between MG and YA.

I'm so glad I finally read it.

While I enjoyed Nate's adventure to NYC to try out for ET: The Musical (I laughed out loud. A lot.), it's Nate's role in his family and his treatment at school and in his town that have me thinking about how to use this book with my students. The slurs and physical attacks that Nate receives from his classmates are told in flashbacks. Nate doesn't dwell on them, though it's obvious he's been deeply hurt. It's wonderful to watch Nate discover a place for himself in the theater world. (And the sequel is terrific too.)

Muckers by Sandra Neil Wallace

At last year's ALAN Workshop, Chris Crutcher said that Muckers was the book he wished he'd written this year. That was enough for me to buy it.

Muckers is inspired by the true story of the 1950 Jerome Muckers football team. Hatley, Arizona, is a mining town with a dying mine. It's already been announced that the high school will close at the end of the year, so this will be the final season for the Muckers, a football team that has twice lost in the state championship to larger teams. For quarterback Red O'Sullivan, it's the last chance to live up to his older brother's legacy.

Every time I thought I had a grasp on this book, it revealed another layer. It's about football, and a school, and a town. It's about race, and ethnicity, and segregation. It's about religion. It's about war. It's about family.

I highly recommend this book, and I'm going to make it my personal mission to get as many students as I can to read it this year.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Celebrate: Two Weeks in Photos

Lunch at the (new) Red Hot, Tacoma, WA.
I've been wanting to do this FOREVER.
So glad the mountain came out on the 4th (Commencement Bay, WA).
My dad (right) and his best friend of 35+ years.
Vashon ferry.
Yes, I did fit all six in one suitcase.
Love the clean shelves. Love the stack of arcs I borrowed.
Clean desk means my apartment reorganization is almost complete.
Maggie Stiefvater at The Book Stall, Winnetka, IL.
Bell's Brewing, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Woke up yesterday to find this in a text message. I'm very excited!

How was your week?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thoughts from nErDcampMI

Twice this summer, I have left my apartment and hit the road BEFORE STARBUCKS IS EVEN OPEN. TWICE! And both times it's been worth it. I'm not saying I enjoyed leaving at 3:45am to pick up a colleague to drive to Michigan (we were in ANOTHER STATE by the time Starbucks opened), but I would do it again. I probably will do it again next summer. (Also, what happened to 24-hour Starbucks locations?)

Here are some highlights:

Finding Diverse YA Lit for Diverse YA Readers (Session Notes):

One thing I sometimes struggle with at conferences is whether or not to go to sessions led by my friends. They're my friends. I talk to them frequently online (and follow their tweets and reviews and . . . ).

I'm glad that this time I stuck with my friends.

This session was a true example of the edcamp ideal that everyone is the expert. The room was full, and nearly everyone in there could have led an all-day PD session on diverse books. Seriously, I've been to those one-day workshops where someone covers the best new books, and while those workshops are pretty good, this hour was better. WAY better. The titles came fast and furious, accompanied by nods and affirmations from the room. I don't always look at notes from sessions, but the above list is a terrific resource. This was the best hour of PD I've had this year, with a room full of experts, and I'm grateful that Cindy and Sarah put this on the idea board.

How NOT to Kill the Mockingbird (Session Notes)

If the session above was a room full of experts pooling their knowledge about diverse YA lit, then my first session after lunch was a dozen colleagues working on one of the eternal problems of English instruction in high school. How do we balance required texts and choice reading? What do we do with a required text that is too easy for some students and impossible for others? How do we teach without worksheets if the rest of the team swears by the packet? And how does this all happen with the reality of testing and more testing?

We might have discovered more questions than solutions, but everyone in the room came away with something to try next year, and the knowledge that other teachers are struggling with the same tensions. I wish every faculty and team meeting could be this useful.

Where do we go from here?

Well, in my case, we went to two breweries. (Perhaps I was influenced by this session.) (Stay with me, I swear this is relevant.)

Dark Horse Brewing, Marshall, Michigan
Bell's Brewing, Kalamazoo, Michigan

We needed to kill some time before driving back to Chicago in order to avoid rush hour, so we stopped for both appetizers and dinner. And because both times we sat at the bar instead of at tables, we ended up talking to our neighbors, and inevitably they asked us what had brought us to Michigan.

So we told them about nErDcampMI.

I forget sometimes that not everyone has heard of the Nerdy Book Club, or edcamps, or even reading and writing workshop. Most people, if they think about education, think about their own experience, or their child's, or what they hear in the media. And that, of course, is not the full story.

As educators, we need to tell our stories to the larger community.

When someone asks what you did this summer, or why you were in Michigan, or even what brings you to Bell's Brewing on a Tuesday night, tell them about nErDcamp, and about edcamps generally. Tell them about your students and your classroom. Tell them about the book that you can't wait to share when school starts. Tell them about the teachers traveling from all over the country in JULY to sit in a room and talking about teaching.

The larger community needs to hear our stories.

See you next July!

(If you're reading this and you were in one of these sessions, or at nErDcamp generally, please leave a comment. I'd love to follow more people on Twitter who were in those rooms.)

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Celebrate: Finally!

Discover. Play. Build.

  1. I love that Ruth hosts this linkup every week, and I knew that when I started writing again, this would become part of my writing routine. So I'm celebrating that I'm finally here!
  2. A clean apartment: I confess, I'm not one for cleaning. My classroom is fiendishly organized, but I never adopted the adult habit of vacuuming and dusting and such. I usually wait until I see the dirt or dust, and by then it's too late. It had also been a long time since I had seriously decluttered my space: unwanted TVs, old VHS tapes, a printer I didn't use. So on the last work day after school got out, I bought a new vacuum cleaner. I could write an entire post celebrating my new Dyson Animal Complete. It put a serious dent in my budget (though I did save +$200 off the regular price), but it's so worth it.
    I have spent the last two weeks hauling things to the dumpster, filling my car with things to give away, and deep cleaning. I am sitting in my new office space typing this (in a chair from my classroom that wouldn't have fit pre-cleaning), and the end is in sight. My hope is to be able to spend the whole month of July just enjoying my cleaner, less cluttered space.
  3. A successful shopping trip: I hate shopping for clothes. It is, perhaps, my least favorite chore. However, I have two events this summer that I knew required clothing that I didn't have in my closet, so I asked a friend to take me to the Nordstrom Rack. We spent two hours there (this is a record for me) and I found clothes for both events AND got a start on some new items for school in the fall.
  4. Pride: It's the weekend of the Pride Parade in Chicago, and the neighborhood is filling up with people and rainbows and, well, pride. I've lived here ten years, and I love how far society has come in that short amount of time. (I will also celebrate that this year I WON'T make the mistake of trying to drive into the neighborhood post-parade like I did after ALA last year.)
  5. Change? My teaching assignment is changing this year. This wasn't my choice, and I argued for something else, but it's ultimately out of my hands. That being said, I am excited (will be excited?) to focus my energies in fewer directions. More on that to come, for sure!

What are you celebrating this week?





Friday, June 27, 2014

Recess Football and Reading Community

"Miss Kelley, Miss Kelley!"

It's lunch time, three years ago. It's also a 1:45pm dismissal day, our version of a shortened full day for PD.

"Miss Kelley, the boys won't let us play football with them today."

They're 6th graders at this point. The girls are as tall as the boys. Many are taller.

"They might get hurt," the boys insist.

It's at that point that I know that our first read-aloud when they're in 8th grade will be Catherine Gilbert Murdock's Dairy Queen.

We started the year with Dairy Queen. This class loved football, and played every. single. recess. for three years. I have about 2,000 photos like the one above.

One of the great joys of reading aloud to students is the element of surprise. This is the second time I've used Dairy Queen as a read-aloud, and both times I deliberately kept the plot a secret. Sure, they could look it up online, and a few had already read it, but most had no idea that DJ would decide to try out for the football team. There is a purity to this reading experience that we don't often get today, with reviews and spoilers and jacket summaries that tell entirely too much information.

So I read them Dairy Queen. We were, at this point, starting our journey through A Tale of Two Cities, which is difficult and frustrating for the students, so I was glad to have a read-aloud that was easier to understand. And when we finished it, they begged for me to read them The Off Season.

So I did.

I warned them there would be lots of kissing in the first part of the book. I told them the novel ends on an emotional cliffhanger. They still wanted me to read it, and since I think it's the strongest of the trilogy, a book I had wanted to read aloud but how do you start with the second book, I willingly relented.

I treated the second book as more of a novel study, primarily through written responses. I asked them questions that forced them to get to subtext, we tried to get at the characters, we close read some passages. They were shocked at the twist in the plot, and they felt personally betrayed when the beloved love interest from Dairy Queen let DJ down when it mattered.

I knew, of course, that they would beg me to read Front and Center. I told them they could read it on their own, but they insisted. "Miss Kelley," they argued, "we have to finish it together."

And so we did.

Front and Center was our Friday afternoon reward. As one student said as she entered the room last period on a Friday, "This is my favorite period of the week."

It was mine too.


Thursday, June 26, 2014

We Need More Time

I woke up this morning thinking about Google forms and spreadsheets.


Like most reading teachers I know, at some point during the year I want my students to create and turn in a list of the books that they've read that year. I've done this a variety of ways over the years: handwritten lists, spreadsheets imported from Goodreads, spreadsheets from Google forms.

But that's not what I want to write about today.

As I came more fully awake this morning, and as my brain kept thinking about Google forms and spreadsheets, I had the thought that brought me fully awake: Time spent teaching students to make a Google form is time not spent reading or writing.

I knew this, of course. I'd already had that thought awake, but for some reason my sleeping brain returned to it.

So I'm thinking about time.

I haven't made many decisions about next year, and I'm still waiting for some school-level decisions to be made (like how many periods we will have of humanities next year), but I know that I have to take back control over how we use time in the classroom. Reading and social studies have taken too much time away from writing, and writing needs that time back.

Next year I will most likely have 13 or 14 40-minute periods to teach a combination of reading, language arts, and social studies. (While it's listed as language arts on report cards, I always call it writing.) The 15th period is library.

If I were to add up everything I want to do in a week, and everything I'm mandated to do, and everything my students need, I could easily fill all 45 periods on our schedule each week, including lunch, study hall, and mass. Somehow I don't see that happening.

So how do I find the time? How do I stop to teach a technology skill, valuable and useful though it is, when it takes away from reading and writing? And if I can't find the time, how can English teachers with only one period each day to teach both reading and writing find the time?

So that's what I'm thinking about this morning.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Core Belief 1: I Believe in Students

At the end of Kelly Gallagher's terrific writing book, Write Like This, there's a chapter with his ten core beliefs about the teaching of writing. I have, since finishing his book two years ago, been working on my own core beliefs about teaching. Here is one of them.

I Believe in Students

At some point in my teacher certification program, we were asked if we were going to be a "sage on the stage" or a "guide on the side." For me, with my shiny college degree and plenty of expertise in English and history, the answer was obvious.

I was going to be a sage on the stage.

I still am sometimes. There are days, or moments, or lessons, when I stand in front of my students and tell them, tell them, tell them something, and hope it sticks.

But, in more recent years, I have worked deliberately to not stand in front of the room and teach at my students. I repurposed the podium and rearranged my classroom so it wasn't facing the SmartBoard. I left the walls blank when school started so that we could fill them, together. I let my students influence our next read-aloud; I change course in our history study based on their interests. I skip a lesson, or I teach it twice.

I Believe in Students.

Sometimes they make this difficult. They will work hard to convince me that they cannot do something. "I cannot learn all those countries," they say, and turn in the quizzes and tests to prove it. "I cannot read A Tale of Two Cities," they say, and then they don't. "I cannot use a comma," they say, and they don't, or they throw one in wherever.

I Believe in Students. Even when they don't want me to.

Our students can do difficult things. They can learn where to put 160+ countries on a map. They can follow the situation in Ukraine. They can read fifty books in a school year, and write a novel, and cry for Sydney Carton. They can, each year, learn a few more rules for commas.

I Believe in Students.