“Don’t Call it a Comeback!”

Hey blog-o-sphere – it has been awhile….

I am sorry for the absence. I have been gathering life experience that has forever changed my path, opinions, personal missions/mantras, and my daily manner of thinking.

Here are 7 things I learned since I last wrote:

  1. Hope – at its core, is the most precious thing one person can give to another
  2. Humor is a sign of resilience
  3. No matter the issue, there is never just one point of view
  4. Life is not fair – not even a little bit.
  5. We are stronger than we are capable of understanding
  6. My story is important and so is yours
  7. The WHY must be your biggest motivation in life

As I sit at #NCTE17 in St. Louis, Missouri, I can’t help but feel energized and happy to be writing professionally again, despite taking a step back from doing so. Because I am a transparent person, this hiatus occurred because my 6 year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer in March of 2016, and despite strength, beauty, and innocence, she passed in March of 2017. I share this not because it is sad… which it is, but I do so because I have struggled to find the time to contribute to this blog because of it.

Like many of my students, I have had to prioritize my emotions, time, and willingness to be public.

I type this now to my professional followers because I believe more than ever, that our students lives and individual experiences matter most and must be the muse for the interactions we get to have each day. We each bring our delicious burdens with us and often times, these burdens are the things that hinder us and prohibit us from contributing to our fullest.

So where I am going with this entry… well, a reoccurring question in my life and thoughts lately has been: why? Many of the whys I have been asking are a bit more spiritual, personal, and existential, the question has led me to a moment of pause, and I find myself asking why with more frequency in my life.

I recently read Simon Sinek’s book Start with the Why and it helped to bring me to an awakening in multiple facets of my life AND THAT is what this entry is about…

Simon calls it the Golden Circle (Why, How, and What):

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So, when trying to sell, or in my case teach, something to someone, we must ensure our WHY is the core of the sales pitch, not our WHAT. This simple idea has helped me to try to be critical of all that I do in my classroom. I don’t want to waste a moment of my and my students’ time. Now, this idealistic approach is tough to achieve — but the Golden Circle model has helped me see a light at the end of that tunnel.

Since I am a teacher, I focus on a lot of “whats” – for example – close reading/ literary analysis, personal narrative, formative assessments, independent reading, writers workshop, etc. What I have come to realize is that the “whats” that have been the most successful in my classroom are the ones that use the “whys” to get my students to buy in.

To prove this point, let me use the Trumbull High School Poetry Slam as an example. Just so you have a little background, the Annual Poetry Slam is part of the Poetry Elective Curriculum. We call it a Cross Course Interdisciplinary Unit. The students in all the sections of the Poetry Elective work together to create the Slam from the ground to the sky. On the day we tell students they will be empowered and they will steer the direction of the Slam, we have to pitch them the idea. So let us consider two different sales pitches and see which one would get more buy in.

Sales pitch #1 –

“Ok gang – today I am going to challenge you to be in charge of the Annual Poetry Slam. To do so, you will be put into groups of like minded individuals that play to your strengths.”

Not terrible – the WHAT is clear and HOW they will do it is laid out. Now, I realize this example may get buy in when presented like this, but what about starting with the WHY!

Here is the new pitch using the Golden Circle:

“Ok gang – today you are going to get a chance to leave a permanent mark on our school community and help to change the lives of some of your peers. You will be a part of a group that plays to your strengths and work with students/ faculty who are like minded. You will learn skills that go beyond these classroom walls, by hosting, producing, and promoting the Annual Poetry Slam.”

If you notice in the second sales pitch, the WHY is very clear (“to leave a permanent marl on your school community and help to change… lives.”). A student isn’t left to wonder why I think they should be doing this. It is transparent.

So what does this distinction teach me and how does it apply to my day to day thinking?

Well, I value love, life, and time more now than ever before. So, as much as I possibly can, when I am thinking about a WHAT, I do my best to ensure there is a WHY.

In teaching, it has helped me to be sure my students know why I think what we are doing is important and meaningful. This simple formula has helped me diagnosis why lessons have been successful and why some have failed. When I am passionately invested in instruction, I have been unconsciously focused on the WHY.

So go out there – start with the why when you work with your students and when someone tries to get you to buy into a WHAT – be sure they can defend it with a WHY.

Much love all, it is good to be back, and my NCTE17 highlights will follow soon!

Jim

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Let ’em Read!

A few weeks into independent reading, I ask my students to tell me how it’s going for them. The notebook entry, not surprisingly, is called “How’s it going?” and asks them to reflect upon the following:

What has your experience with Independent Reading been like so far? You can include (but are not limited to) a discussion of your thoughts and feelings about:

    1. getting to choose what you read
    2. the books you have finished
    3. the current book you are reading
    4. what you have noticed about your:
      • reading rate
      • reading ability
      • reading preferences
    5. the 10 minutes of in-class reading time
    6. having a weekly time and page number goal

I didn’t really know what their repsonses would contain, and what they said was truly englightening.

  • It was no surprise that all of my students said they absolutely love being able to choose the books they read. Many of them said that it has allowed them to rediscover their love for reading:
  • Each and every one of my students appreciate the 10 minutes each day in class. In addition to it helping them meet their 2 hour weekly reading goal, they say that they find those ten minutes to be relaxing. It allows them to escape into a book for a brief moment and it helps them reduces stress.  They also love how this helped to create a culture of reading:
  • What I did not see coming was a request made by multiple students to have independent reading in each of their classes, not just English. Students were asking for the possibility of beginning their science, history, and even math classes with some type of focused, topical reading:
  • Although the responses were overwhelmingly positive in favor of self-selecting text and independent reading, the one area that divided students was reading logs. Some view the logs as a great way to challenge themselves to surpass their weekly page goal. Others don’t like the idea of logging their pleasure reading – they said it made it seem like work. For students who are resenting the logs, I went over ways to alleviate the “work” aspect of it, offering that instead of writing down their reading each day, they could calculate their goal on Monday, reach that page number by Sunday, and be confident that they had read for two hours. They could simply document the end page on their logs and it would suffice.

When it’s all said and done, the weekly logs echo the students’ sentiments in the notebook entry, so I know they didn’t make stand alone comments to impress me. I watch them burn through books each week in all of my classes. In fact, when given a goal of 120 minutes a week, many go far beyond it because they want to read. And, what’s better than getting credit for doing what you love? I say, let em’ read!

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4 hours, 20 minutes of reading in one week!
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290 minutes of reading in one week!
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638 minutes of reading! In one week! And she did all of her other homework!

 

The Single Best Thing I’ve Done This Year: The Personal User Manual.

I follow a number of educational blogs regularly (Tricia Ebarvia, Moving Writers, and Three Teachers Talk just to name a few) and have gained phenomenal ideas, fantastic models, and vetted best practices that I employ with success. Most recently, Amy Rasmussen of Three Teachers Talk authored a post that absolutely changed my classroom and my first day activities. She described having students write a Personal User Manual: precisely the writing that establishes classroom community. I share a piece of myself with students, and they share pieces of themselves with me.

I created this quick set of directions, using the mentor text Rasmussen referenced: Abby Falik’s Personal User Manual on LinkedIn. Since I have students complete a Reading History at another point in the year, I remained faithful to Falik’s categories, saving questions about favorite books and reading habits for later. I asked students to write about:

  1. Their style
  2. What they value
  3. What they don’t have patience for
  4. What they do in their spare time
  5. Qualities they look for in a teacher
  6. What they’re passionate about
  7. One BIG question they have for this year
  8. Their strengths
  9. What success at the end of the year looks like for them
  10. How to best communicate with them
  11. What people misunderstand about them
  12. How to help them

I gave them a copy of my Personal User Manual to refer to both as an example and so they would learn a bit about me. Then, I gave students the weekend to collect their ideas and commit them to paper. The responses were enlightening.

This student chose to place small sketches in the margins of her work (an artist!) and asked a question that absolutely floored me: “What does it mean to grow up and how do you do it without letting go of childhood?” 

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Wow. This is where I began to feel really inadequate.

This student’s idea of success is something that we can all learn from:Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.34.25 PM.png

This student’s touching response talks about the importance of family and her love for her brother:

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I can’t help but smile at the voice that shines through here (and is strong throughout the rest of her piece):

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This student was so open and honest from the start – this is his opening from the “My Style” section – and we had been acquainted with each other for a total of an hour and half when he turned this is:

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.48.00 PM.pngBut my favorite of all would have to be this response – both for the voice and the witty way in which this student conveyed ideas. This is from the “What I don’t have patience for” section:

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This student took creative risks that paid off because the assignment allowed for and encouraged it. The informal tone allowed her to express herself fully and I learned more about my students from this one assignment than I have from any assignment EVER over the course of my teaching career.

If you think those examples are good – wait for this “mind-blown” moment I’m about to drop on you: every one of my students turned the Personal User Manual in on time.  You read that right. That sentence above was not a series of typos in italics. I will repeat: EVERY SINGLE STUDENT TURNED THE ASSIGNMENT IN ON TIME. They WANTED to write this!

I know it’s past the beginning of the year for most of us, and we’ve moved past introductory activities. However, this assignment is so revealing that it may be the single best thing you do this year. In fact, you probably want to stop whatever you’re doing and plan this in for next week.

It’s worth it. I promise.

 

 

 

The Book Talk

Book Talks are an integral component of rigorous independent reading programs.  I find Book Talks sometimes get tossed aside to save class time or because teachers feel uncomfortable delivering a book advertisement. Tomorrow is the first mini-workshop I will be hosting for my colleagues as our school’s part time Instructional Coach. The goal of this workshop is to provide teachers with some tools to combat Book Talk avoidance.

Today’s blog post is to allow colleagues to preview what will be discussed during tomorrow’s afternoon workshop.  

What is a Book Talk?

A Book Talk is a 2-3 minute speech designed for students to consider a new read.

Why do a Book Talk?

A Book Talk’s purpose is to get students to read a particular book. It is an opportunity for the teacher to convince a reader to try a new genre, or to consider books with different complexity levels.

How do you do a book talk?

There is more than one way to correctly do a book talk!  However, there are a few guiding principles that should be present each time:

  1. Book in hand – use your personal copy or borrow from the library.  Additionally, for further visual effect,  put something on the Smart Board – author’s picture or an image related to book.
  2. Captivating passage – give students a taste of the author’s style or story.
  3. Connect – explain why the passage you chose is important to you and the book.
  4. Sell – explain why your students should consider reading the text.
  5. Reading rate – explain how the text impacted your personal reading rate and how a student in your course might fare with text.

This is the outline I will be using to guide discussion.  Feel free to bring a book you are interested in sharing with students.  We’ll look at them together and create an exciting Book Talk that is ready for delivery!

Title Time

Last year my students were begging for funny books and I made it a goal to find some titles that were worthy of a teacher recommendation.  When I searched my classroom shelves, I discovered my library was definitely lacking in this category. Students have the right idea – humor helps us to escape the darker sides of reality.  When we are laughing at coming of age mishaps and dating disasters we tend to forget the threat of nuclear war or weather disasters.

I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle (the Larry Doyle – writer for “The Simpsons”) is a classic “geek loves popular girl” love story. Class Valedictorian Denis Cooverman is in love with the head cheerleader, Beth Cooper. Denis mistakenly decides to declare his infatuation to the entire student body while giving a graduation speech.  The entire novel centers around the reckless choices Denis and his one friend make during an epic night of partying.

loveyoubethcooper

There are many, many funny moments in this novel.

“Years later, Denis’s mother felt guilty when she read i her alternative health magazine, Denial, that junk food was linked to an early onset of puberty.  At fourteen, Denis’s puberty had yet to onset, and his mother feared his trans-fatty-acid-and-bovine-growth-hormone-deficient diet was to blame for his pubic postponement” (36).

“She meant that Denis’s face frightened and repulsed her.  Given that only a few minutes before she had found it kissable, that was saying something.  Now, by the light of the submerging moon, Beth could see that Denis’s face, in addition to its previously catalogued irregularities, was a swarming mass of mosquito bites” (236).

Doyle’s writing style invites students to analyze word choice and tone.

“‘I wasn’t afraid,’ Denis wanted to explain.  ‘I was…’ All the words his brain offered up were rough synonyms for fear, from pusillanimous to shitting bricks, and including epistaxiophobia, fear of nosebleeds, and rhabdophobia, fear of being beaten with sticks, two of Denis’s more reasonable phobias, and ones he was soon to have the opportunity to face (along with his agliophobia, gymnophobia, athazagoraphobia, and a few others)” (81).

However, a lot of the novel’s plot events seemed over the top or forced.  

–Beth Cooper’s ex-boyfriend drives a hummer into the living room of a party. Where are the parents? Cops? No one even gets really hurt…

— He also manages to drive this Hummer onto a rickety dock trying to scare Denis and Beth causing no damage or bodily harm. Really??

–Denis gets beat up all night by the ex-boyfriend – his face is distorted by the end (scary and cruel??)

–A ridiculous first time sex scene that puts this book in the “questionable for many 9th graders” category

I wanted the book to be funnier.  I pride myself on being able to appreciate novels students would love and connect to so I was surprised to disagree with many of the positive book reviews.  I wonder what students would think?

So, the search continues.  I’ll keep researching and reading – waiting for the perfect book that will have my students roaring during independent reading time.  I’m going to start with a few  recommendations from Bustle.  Please help my library out by sending along any titles I need to have on my classroom shelves!

Happy Reading!

That’s a Wrap! Success Stories and Book Stack Shots from 2017

emmajumpIf time flies when you’re having fun, then I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my reading life in 2017 since I have no idea where this year went! This was the third year with Independent Reading in my classroom and I think it has been one of the best. From freshmen rekindling the love of reading that they remember having in elementary school, to seniors begging “Please! Just five more minutes!” when the timer buzzed, students have been exploring and engaged with titles of their choice.

One of the unforseen bonuses of Independent Reading this year was the success of poetry in all of my classes. I give all of the credit to books like Milk and Honey and Whiskey, Words and a Shovel. They served as “gateway verse” to other collections such as There Are More Beautiful Things Than BeyoncéThe Princess Saves Herself in This OneFile_001, The Chaos of Longing, Forgive Me My Salt, New American Best Friend, and Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Not only were students reading poetry, but their reading choices encouraged one junior to add a third English class to his schedule – a poetry elective – when he is required to take only two. How cool is that? My English teacher heart is just about exploding.

File_000Another awesome moment happened with my seniors who are searching out topics and genres of interest as they transition from teen to adult. One student loved Lab Girl so much that she purchased a copy for her current science teacher. I don’t know if this is the sentiment that Penny Kittle wanted to reflect when she titled her text Book Love, but seeing how this student is sharing what touched her with others definitely “gives me all the feels” as my students would say.

Finally, students self-reported how many books and pages they consumed over the course of 2017. Their numbers are phenomenal. Top performers include:

  • ACP juniors who read
    • 27 books 7,953 pages (Christine)
    • 27 books 7,686 pages (Brandon)
    • 24 books 7,862 pages (Abby)
    • 21 books 6,874 pages (Krisha)
  • 9th grade honors who read
    • 49 books 13,204 pages (Nancy)
    • 44 books 12,681 pages (Piper)
    • 43 books 13,527 pages (Helen)
    • 38 books 12,224 pages (Natalie)
  • Honors World Literature students – 2nd semester seniors – who read
    • 22 books 5,934 pages (Eleni)
    • 15 books 4,183 pages (Olivia)
    • 13 books 4,123 pages (Conner)
    • 15 books 4,094 pages (Maddie)

On average, my freshmen read 21 books and 6,000 pages, juniors read 16.5 books and 4,250 pages and my seniors – who should have been partaking in the infamous Senior Slump – read an average of 14 books 3,400 pages each between February and the end of May! With that accomplishment alone, I could retire tomorrow fully satisfied.

But, I can’t end this post without sharing pictures from one of my favorite days all year: the class period when students helped each other take their end-of-year Book Stack Shots. In a noisy atmosphere that can best be described as organized chaos, students helped each other locate, stack, and document all that they had read this year. They weren’t afraid to let their personalities show.  I hope you enjoy the photos and maybe even glean some titles for your To Be Read list. Special thanks to the Trumbull High School Media Center for letting us raid the shelves during the last week of school!

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Happy Summer Reading, folks!

A Call for Ideas: Writing the Reading into the Curriculum

Dear fellow teachers:

When we began our Independent Reading journey in 2014, we had three classroom libraries and three willing (okay – crazy) teachers who decided to experiment with a program we found as a result of attending Mamaroneck High School’s 2014 NCTE Convention Presentation.  Three years later, we have expanded to nine classroom libraries. After presenting professional development to more than 200 educators across 11 Connecticut districts, we have arrived at a point where the administration wants to ensure that each student has an equitable experience with the Independent Reading program. They want it written into the 9th grade curriculum, which will be revised this summer.

This seems spectacular, right? We get to continue our program and to have the district fund classroom libraries for all 9th grade English teachers. However, in our department of 22, 9 teachers are currently employing Rigorous Independent Reading daily using the method that Penny Kittle outlines in Book Love. We have one more teacher practicing “Reading Fridays” where Monday through Thursday are regular instruction days and on Fridays, the classes read for a full 45 minute period. Finally, a number of other teachers use literature circles or engage the students in Independent Reading over one quarter or one semester of the year.  So, about half of the department has not elected to try the practice of Independent Reading, while others are trying various alternate methods to have students engage in some form of self-selecting and reading texts. So, here lies the rub: is it possible to assure an equitable experience for students across classrooms while maintaining the comfort level and current practices of our colleagues?

We have had many department meetings discussing the concerns our department has as well as the progress and positive improvement our students have made, but we still haven’t come to a consensus and have been told that “Independent Reading will happen in all 9th grade classes in the fall.” Our task is to figure out what that should look like and write it into the curriculum.

Based on my own students’ success over the past few years, I have some pretty strong opinions about what I think an Independent Reading program should look like (read here and here).  However, as someone who started Independent Reading during my 14th year of teaching, I understand what completely revamping instruction looks like and it’s unsettling. I understand how and why my colleagues have a healthy fear of change. So, I am left with more questions than answers as we begin to embark upon this journey of changing the curriculum to reflect our current practices:

  1. What does curriculum reveal about a community’s beliefs about literacy? What do we value? What do we want our students be able to do and carry with them as they graduate high school?
  2. How do (or should) we define Independent Reading?
  3. How much instructional time should be spent on engaging students in reading texts of their own choosing?
  4. What balance should there be between whole class texts and independent books?
  5. How do we support teachers as they embark on the journey of changing their classroom structure and culture, and their own instruction?
  6. What should be taught in the 9th grade English classroom?
  7. Can the skills we value be addressed via an Independent Reading program?
  8. What is the difference between offering instruction on skills and offering instruction on a text?
  9. If one teacher has students read for 10 minutes each day and another has students read for a 50 minute block of time, are they getting the same experience at the end of the week? Are these two different practices the same program? Is this equitable?
  10. Does one quarter of Literature Circles = Independent Reading solely outside of class for one semester = engaging in Independent Reading daily?
  11. What does the fact that Independent Reading has to be written in to the curriculum say about the culture of the school and community?
  12. What type of growth mindset should we have as educators? As a school? As a community?

I have been grappling with these queries for some time now and would love ideas and feedback.  What are your answers to the above pedagogical questions? How does your district’s curricula reflect your Independent Reading practice? Please let us know in the comments!

Sincerely,

The THS Reading (R)evolution