The Edge of Chaos

Unlike my colleagues who immediately go into a flurry of response to what they learn, I’m currently suffering from conference paralysis. For me, attending NCTE is pretty much the same as sitting on the edge of chaos.  It’s exhausting, loud, and soul searching.  I never quite know what to do next.  And have you read my colleagues’ blog posts?  How can I even begin to follow Jim’s sharing of his heartbreak and how he is turning life experiences into hope and growth? And the musings from Karlen, who is constantly tweaking lessons to make her classroom into a beautiful, inviting environment for readers and writers to learn?  To grow personally and professionally beside them is a gift.  

Yesssss, NCTE was full of aha moments, but my brain just needs a time-out to process all the wisdom I collected over the past five days. My guess is that there are thousands of English teachers who returned to their classrooms this morning on full overload.  Maybe you need this, too?

I present to you the following deep thoughts on attending the NCTE Annual Convention with Crazy One and Crazy Two through GIFs…

  1. Karlen and I getting lost while trying to use Google Maps to get from our hotel to the Convention Plaza:                                                          giphy-2
  2. Jim or Karlen sitting next to me during a session while I’m trying to be a good listener:                   giphy-3
  3. Karlen running into Twitter friends at Starbucks:       giphy-4
  4. Karlen trying to enter the Exhibit Hall on Sunday while I ran the other way: giphy-5
  5. Karlen getting to hang with Penny Kittle for her Book Love session: giphy-6
  6. Jim after getting a Penny Kittle retweet:          yx87VHP
  7. Jim as inspiration hits:                 giphy-7
  8. Me listening to session speakers discussing common practice vs best practice: giphy-8
  9. All three of us getting books at ALAN: giphy-9
  10. What teachers think they look like (in general) when getting free books: giphy-10
  11. What we really look like:                                h0A96F8BF
  12. Teachers climbing into bed at the end of a grueling conference day: giphy
  13. And finally – ME… walking past, standing near, and trying to speak to my author heroes:                     giphy-11

Thank you, NCTE and St. Louis, for the much needed renewal.  Stay tuned for more posts as the 3 lone nuts recommit to sharing ideas and growth in the blogosphere.

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When Your Thinking is at 85%: Getting the Final 15% or My “Duh” Moments from #NCTE17

I love attending NCTE’s Annual Convention. There is something about tens of thousands of English teachers going all “Hunger Games” over free books and swag that is as invogorating as it is frightening. What is more energizing than surviving the Exhibit Hall, however, is being part of the exchange of ideas and the larger community of educators who are there to hone our craft. I live for those moments when I am sitting in a session and it all just comes together, when what the presenter is saying “clicks,” and I find an immediate use for the materials or ideas in my classroom.

Many of those times, someone simply unites two ideas or materials that I had used separately. When this happens, I find myself thinking, “Well, duh. That makes so much sense! I should have seen this and done it earlier.” Then, I proceed to kick myself for not coming up with it first and being the one to present the idea.

So, here is a small sampling of three instances where this occurred over the course of #NCTE17, both for me, and for other presenters:

  1. The first “duh” moment that happened, surprisingly enough, is when I unknowingly pieced ideas together for someone else. I was listening to Sean Connors from the University of Arkansas talk about how he challenged his students in an assignment with dystopian literuate. His roundtable, entitled, “Becoming Mockingjays: Using Young Adult Literature to Foster Student Civic Engagement” was phenomenal. He explained how his students had studied YA dystopia novels, found a problem that existed within the books and society, unpacked the issue, explored and researched it, and then created a video on their findings. As an initial task, the students were encouraged to go into local bookstores or libraries and leave a notecard with the unpacked issue inside copies of the book. Then, they completed their research, analysis, and video. He said that students often wondered about the reactions of people who found their cards, and mused that it was something that they would never know. Considering what he had said, I asked if he had ever considered placing the cards into the books at the end of the project instead of at the start. This one simple change would allow students to print a QR code on their card that would link to the video they had created. That way, the students’ videos would gain a larger and more authentic audience, and would offer those indivuals who found and watched the videos an opportuntiy to provide feedback via commentary on YouTube if they felt so moved.
  2. Teaching rhetoric has been a big push in my district recently, as it has been written into our curricula for grades 9-11. So, I attended a morning round table session on Sunday (K.06: Public Rhetoric: Agency, Voice, and Mission in the Public Sphere) to gather ideas and materials to prepare to instruct on it. It was at my second round table where the “duh” moment struck: The College Essay as Rhetoric. Of course it’s rhetoric! How had I not seen this before! That essay is perhaps the most important writing teens will do in their lives up until that point – convincing a college or university to accept them for matriculation. Now, I can get them to see the importance of the rhetorical triangles of ethos-pathos-logos and speaker-audience-message in their writing and use it as a gateway for them to see the importance of those constructs in other writing as well.
  3. My last sesssion at NCTE was perhaps the most informative, althout I might be a bit biased. You see, I got to listen to some of my teaching heroes talk about best practices with writing in the #movingwriters panel. Each one of the speakers had fantastic ideas, but what stuck with me was what Hattie Maguire (@teacherhattie) had unpacked. We all have methods that we use to aid students with drafting. However, Maguire spoke of using physical movement in the writing process. Her idea was simply and spectacularly brilliant. Students are too often stuck in their desk or behind a screen while writing. Then, once they commit words onto the page, it’s hard to get them to change. Before students began to type, Maguire had students map out their argument on the floor and walk a partner through the progression of ideas. They took a stack of transition words and lay them on the floor along with their ideas to show the path of their argument. Once they had to move themselves and their partners through their ideas, they were able to troubleshoot imbalanced arguments, gaps in reasoning, and poorly ordered claims or evidence. This is absolutely perfect for everyone – it establishes that mind-body connection – but I couldn’t help but think of my “wiggly” students who would most likely be more focused on the task if it was framed this way. Again, simple brilliance. Macquire had given me the final 15% of the idea to make drafting fully engaging and productive.

When the convention hall empties, when I have recovered from drinking from the educational fire hydrant, when I have had a moment to process ideas and apply them to lessons, I walk away with this conclusion: teaching has and always will take a village.

Duh, right?

#NCTE17 – a found(ish) poem

Found Poem – A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet.

Found(ish) Poem – all of the above, plus a sprinkling of my own thinking, because – hey, I matter… right?!

Click Here for a Recording of the Poem: https://youtu.be/9lngtSenc1Q 

What is right with education? 

YOU ARE!

And me… well…

there are so many things that I am not —
until I open a book.

And I read to gain empathy
empathy brings the most reward
For,
I am, because we are
and we
We don’t gotta be a hero
We gotta be a human
We don’t save
We see.

We…

Embrace discomfort and disruption;
Claim the uncertainty of that imaginative space

We…

Realize
The canon is what is present in
OUR COMMUNITY!
and
it is being written in
YA
today.

Our disenfranchised readers,
are kids who are often
disregarded &
discarded.

Our classrooms are battlegrounds for love,
for stories,
and for truth
And since I respect you and love you, I must tell you the truth:

  1. You cannot make a connection with a student who
    you have already put facedown.
  2. There is no apolitical classroom
    because no matter the issue,
    there is never just one point of view.
  3. Social justice is a pedagogy, not a unit of study
  4. EVERYONE HAS A VOICE
  5. When we write
    we must remember:
    there is never garbage.
    Garbage is discarded,
    never thought of again.
    Bad writing is fertilizer
    And
    barren land needs to be packed with shit
    (routinely)
    in order for anything to grow.

We write to keep the light lit
the light in the eyes of children
who need to hear our stories

So:

Pass me the Hi-C so I can sing in High C
And my hymn will be of the unknown
With everything in hand
Despite tired feet
remaining until only ash lingers
I have hope knowing
there is a promise
of a new
beginning.

And with my magic wand, I will improve education (and life) by:
teaching literaCY, not literaTURE
tackling bigotry, racism and homophobia with acknowledgement
by teaching sensitive literature
which is diverse, not because of its diversity
but because it is human.

So I say thank you,
I say good-bye now,
I smile knowing,
and I leave you with this:

No More, “That’s just the way it is.”
Or things will always be the same.

“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):

golden-circle.png

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

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!

IMG_5347
4 hours, 20 minutes of reading in one week!
IMG_5348
290 minutes of reading in one week!
IMG_5346
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?” 

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.36.13 PM

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:

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.40.38 PM.png

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

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.43.50 PM

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:

Screenshot 2017-09-15 at 4.52.02 PM.png

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!