Sunday, September 14, 2014

Go Your Own Way---in Your Reading Life #SundaySeries #BookTalkaDay

This post is part of the Sunday Series Blogging Challenge via Portable Teacher.

When I accepted Lee Ann Spillane's invitation to participate in the Sunday Series blogging challenge, I did so knowing that I don't assign summer reading to students. Consequently, I realized my posts would have less to do w/ summer reading programs and more to do w/ the reading community in my classroom. I suppose I'm going my own way, just as readers prefer to do--especially during the summer. 

Although I don't assign summer reading, I have colleagues that do, particularly in the honors classes. For example, students taking English 9-Honors are required to read Animal Farm by George Orwell and complete a series of tasks online. Essentially, it's a unit (a mini online course) for the novel. My colleagues know that this is not the approach I would take if I were teaching the class. We can agree to disagree and still have admiration and respect for one another, which I do for both. 

Students taking AP Language and Composition are required to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and write a paper. Similarly, those in AP Literature this year were required to read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, write a paper and take a test.  Again, as I shared with the AP Literature teacher, who is teaching the class for the first time, this is not the approach I would take, although I don't have a problem expecting students to read during the summer and giving them some direction that will help prepare them for the course and test. I suggested my colleague consider How to Read Literature Like a Professor as an option next summer. 

Students taking AP Language and Composition in my school have long been required to read Huck Finn during the summer. I consider Twain's novel the most problematic in American literature, and it's a novel I have taught often when I teach juniors. 

English teachers relish summer as a time for catching up on our own reading. Even when I'm required to read a book by my administration as part of a staff development course addressing our school goals, I often resent the mandate. Simply, the books are often poorly research and more poorly written. Reading them is painful and a waste of time. A couple of examples: A Framework for Understanding Poverty, A Repair Kit for Grades. Both books are wretched reads, as are many others in their genre. 

As one of my colleagues who requires specific summer reading and I visited during our PLC collaboration, I asked: "What did you read this summer?" He shared several titles, including mysteries and other light reading fare. I asked: "What were you assigned to read?" Of course, he responded "nothing." Just as I did this summer, my colleague had gone his own way in his reading life. He wasn't in school. He was on vacation. Of course he read, and we have enjoyed lively chats about our reading lives and the choices we make as independent readers who go our own way. 

This week's #BookTalkaday Book Talks:

When I checked students' TBR lists in their writing notebooks, I saw several were putting descriptions of books instead of titles. This prompted me to begin keeping a list on the board (image above). I've blogged about some of these books and include the links to the posts below. This week I book-talked the following books:

Cardboard by Doug TenNapel A fabulous golem story. 

Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina : I had to book talk this in my speech class, too, because the kids were fascinated by the title. I won my copy in a Goodreads givaway. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (I included a mini-lesson on direct address as part of the book talk.)

Thunder Dog by Michael Hingson (My 9-11 book talk.) 

Stitches by David Small: This is Small's graphic memoir about the abuse he endured as a child and his survival. Can't say enough good things about the book. 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Tell Me a Reading Story #SummerSeries

Last week I accepted Lee Ann Spillane's challenge on the Portable Teacher blog to post about summer reading during September and October. I started early! Today is my second post in the challenge. 

This week I asked students to "tell me a story about your reading life." I invited students to consider their summer reading, to tell me a story about the moment they lost interest in reading, or to tell me how I can help them rediscover a love of reading. 

I can't assess my students on their required summer reading because we don't have a summer reading mandate for the students I teach. We do, however, mandate reading (and lots of tasks based on the required reading) for students taking honors and AP classes. I'll write more about that in a later post. 

For now, I want to tell reading stories about my students. 

After they completed the quick write, I asked students to share their responses. Getting students to share their writing this early in the year is often difficult, but as they began to read their responses, a common theme emerged: For many students the nail in the reading coffin has been hammered by Accelerated Reading programs. 

One student shared his frustration with AR points and how he was driven away from reading for pleasure by AR mandates. Happily, the student also shared that he discovered The Fault in Our Stars, which made him cry--both times he read the book.  How wonderful to hear a senior boy admit that a book made him cry. Other students echoed this young man's reaction to AR. 

Reading their reading stories also reveals my students' love of fantasy. One student wrote that reading 

lets you escape into a whole new world, which is also why I love fantasy. Fantasy books have a new world every time you pick one up, which is just amazing to me.

Among this student's favorites: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Eragon, Harry Potter. 

For others, a busy life crowds reading to the back of the priority list. One student wrote about loving reading as a child and finding pleasure in "turning the crisp pages" of a book. She credited her mother and the weekly trips to the library as instrumental in her reading life. Now, wrote the student, homework, school activities, her job, her social life all edge out reading as priorities. 

The story of my students' reading lives exists in the realm of Once Upon a Time. Once upon a time these young people loved reading. Once upon a time they turned to reading for escape and enjoyment. Once upon a time AR, for many, taught them that points mattered more than their reading preferences, and they learned to game the system. Once upon a time, life's responsibilities took over and pushed reading out. 

There can be a happy ending. One student wrote about loving reading as a child, learning to dislike reading via AR, being put into study hall in seventh grade and having no homework, which prompted the teacher to send her to the library for a book to read. She read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and later read A Child Called It. Now the student is reading The Pull of Gravity by Gae Polisner, a book from my classroom library. 

This student's reading story is moving toward Happily Ever After, and that's not a fairy-tale ending. 

This week's book talks w/ links to my reviews: 

We Were Liars by e. lockhart

Skinny by Donna Connor

Caged Warrior by Alan Sitomer

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

Monday, September 1, 2014

Knowing My Students' Reading Lives: Sunday Series (on Monday) #sundayseries

Over on the Portable Teacher blog, Lee Ann Spillane, author of Reading Amplified, has laid down a blogging challenge that I've accepted. Simply, Lee plans to explore the summer reading habits of students over the next eight weeks. 

I am teaching three sections of senior English this trimester, so this is the last opportunity for many to develop the habits of "wild readers," as Donalyn Miller calls them, prior to graduation. Many do read voraciously, but just as many describe themselves as nonreaders. 

As my students just started school this past Tuesday, we spent last week exploring our reading lives through several activities, beginning with book talks on Thursday. I introduced students to two books, one from my summer reading and one a favorite of mine that I know students will also love. I read Sekret by Lindsay Smith and composed a short review for the ALAN Review this summer.

Friday's book talk was for Neil Shusterman's Unwind. It's one of my favorite books for both the quality of writing and its themes. I know many of my students have problems at home, and one student who is a fifth-year-senior, did not have a stable place to live last year.
Since I'd had students "wreck" writing journals on Wednesday, our second day together, I had them begin a TBR list at the back of their writing journals on Thursday. In class, we are talking about the habits of good readers, and keeping a TBR list is one of them.

At first, students seemed hesitant to add titles to their TBR lists, but conversations with several and a little prompting from me got them started. One student added Falling Leaves to his list, but I am concerned that the postmodern structure of the book will be a bit much for this student who says he doesn't like to read.

To help students explore their lives as readers, I asked them to create a graphic of "Books I've Read." I found this idea on Pniterest. Here's a link to the original pin. 
Many students struggled with their graphics. Too often my students' reading lives resemble a barren desert rather than an abundant garden ready for harvest. They simply could not recall the titles of the books they've read. Some said they haven't read any books. I suggested they have a section titled "Books I was Assigned to Read" and another called "Books I Started but Didn't Finish." I told students there are no rules for the graphic. They could create categories based on their own ideas and add titles from picture books, too. 

At the end of the period, I asked students who needed help finding a book to read for independent reading to put their name and interests on a post-it. These would help me connect students to books the next day. 

On Friday I asked students to complete a "Reading Autobiography Questionnaire," which I've adapted from William Kist's The Socially Networked Classroom. As students worked on their questionnaires, which I asked them to include in their writing journals, I visited w/ each student about the book they will read as a free-choice book. I helped students find books and checked out 21 books to students. 

These early days of class are crucial to setting the right tone for the year. I want students to see themselves as readers and see that I value the reading choices they make. Next week we'll spend time composing narratives about ourselves as readers and examine the rights of readers. 

Within the next couple of days, I plan to ask students, "What will it take to get you to read more, particularly during the summer?" I want to plant the seeds that will get their reading lives growing now so that the tilling and planting is done in time for growth spurts next summer. 

I'll let you know what they have to say about how they need their reading lives nurtured and will update this post with my students' "Books I've Read" graphics after I get permission forms back. Right now, I'm sure I need to add another title to my TBR pile!

Here's Lee's challenge for those who want to join: If you'd like join in, grab the graphic and link up in comments. Write about summer reading on your blog. Share your link and respond to at least two other writers. Don't forget to comment and link here, too! 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher" by Garret Keizer [Review]

"I'm afraid the day of the teacher as artist is dead," writes Garret Keizer in Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher, the most important book I read this summer. 

Against the cacophony of edubabble produced by the likes of Campbell Brown and the ladies of "The View," Garret Keizer has personalized the consequences of the educational reform movement in his ground-breaking memoir Getting Schooled: The Reeducation of an American Teacher. 

The book narrates Keizer's journey through a year in a Vermont high school after a fourteen-year absence from teaching. Keizer's account tells a story data alone cannot articulate, from the effects of poverty, technology, and social upheaval to the impact of teaching as a lost art to standardization. 

If I were to articulate an essential question the book poses, it is this: What are we really teaching our children through the implemented reforms and with what consequences? We live in a country that verbalizes the value of education but that often uses education to exploit children. We voice one set of values while displaying another.

His thesis that the education reforms of the past twelve years have had detrimental consequences for public education unfolds through monthly chapters that peel back the veneer that shrouds school in a zone of secrecy little understood by those outside the profession. This is a book that wraps teachers in comforting familiarity but that also educates lay readers through narrative in the realities of school life. 

I contemplated the "death of the teacher" who stands before a class of students this past week as I listened to young teachers in my district tell me that I must assign seniors in my English class the task of writing a 50-line "epic" as the formative assessment in the Anglo-Saxon literature unit I teach. The notion that by its very definition an epic is quite long, much longer than fifty lines, seemed irrelevant to the mandate. Increasingly, teachers are forced to dispense wrong information to students. 

Perhaps this is one reason Keizer's memoir resonates with me. Simply, he captures the internal conflicts, the insecurities, the paradoxes I experience as a teacher nearing the end of my career. "The greatest challenge of teaching is not, as is so often averred, finding a way 'to relate to kids.' It is rather finding a way to relate to yourself in a process that often leaves you feeling like a kid" (3). 

Among the books gems are the following: 

On leadership: "You can build a school from the ground up, but the directing of its destiny will always move from the top down" (21). 

On technology: "The technology allows for greater standardization and oversight; it also provides the rationale for greater standardization and oversight" (33).

On curriculum standardization: "I'm not sure students are best served by a faculty of conformists, by teachers who are less shepherds than sheep" (34). 

On data: "I am increasingly devoting more time to the generation and recording of data and less time to the educational substance of what the data is supposed to measure" (52). Additionally, Keizer contends, and I agree, "things of beauty," such as nature and novels, can't be reduced to data points (196). 

On DuFour: "The authors seem to indict the very teachers who played the biggest role in my own formation. Those teachers were never lazy but they were indeed lone wolves, sleek-furred beauties who preferred howling at the moon of their own lunatic inspirations to sniffing hindquarters among the faculty pack" (60). I'm one of the howlers. Always have been. I keep a sign above my desk that reads: "It's not logical; it's just our policy." 

"The DuFour agenda strikes me as an argument for ignoring every 'brutal fact' save those that can be blamed on poor teaching. Out with the pedagogical lone wolf! In with the political ostrich!" (61). 

On standardized testing: Keizer writes about "the game schools must play," the reductive nature of "constructed response" that privileges the five-paragraph essay, and the need for students to "fill the space" as a way to raise their scores (78-79). 

On Teaching as Paradox: "You must reach out to every student with the belief that no student is beyond your reach and that you must, at the same time, hold to the conviction that having served one student is worth the effort of having tried to serve them all" 85). 

On Rubrics: Ostensibly, a rubric is designed to make grading essays objective, but the rubric is filled with criteria that require subjective evaluation. Keizer says rubrics are "as solid as a Freddie Mac mortgage or a Miss America scoring card" (87). 

On Teachers' Influence on Students: "Be wary" of overstating it" (95).

On Failure is not an Option Policies: We enable students to avoid the assigned work. "The idea is an instructional program tailored to meet student needs; the reality, I fear, often devolves to teachers working at cross-purposes and students working the system to their own (dis)advantage" (181). 

Teaching is a profession that fosters insecurity among teachers. We constantly second guess ourselves, and this questioning of our choices feeds those who label public education a failure. Just as we each have stories about inspirational teachers, we also tell stories about that one "bad" teacher. We worry about having been that teacher to some poor student under our tutelage. "Anything you do is bound to be, on some level and for some kid, wrong" (101).

One of the most poignant ideas Keizer floats is the paradox of promoting education to young people and having them think we mean that those without formal education have less value, having them think we're telling them "be more like me." How do we encourage students to get an education for themselves and not devalue those who choose an alternate path? "In a class-bound society, education provides much of the basis for despising--and exploiting--those who lack it" (207).

On Tuesday I'll meet a new class of students as I begin my 34th teaching year. It will take much effort for me to stand strong against forces that harm students and public schools, but part of my job is to teach truth to evil. Part of my job is to show students that it's not enough for me to tell them to resist peer pressure that will do them harm if I'm not prepared to do the same. 

This year, it will be more important than ever for me to show students the importance of literature to their lives and to share how important literature is to me.

Finally, I plan to remind myself that "as far as teaching goes, when all you are is right, what you really are is in trouble" (268).