Monday, March 31, 2014

Reflecting on Reflecting

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

Writing a blog entry every day for a month was about as hard as I expected it to be.

While I have been writing a book review blog for my students for a couple of years, that isn’t the same as trying to find something new every day to reflect on for 31 days straight. Books are easy to talk about. I’m not putting myself out there in the same way that I am on this blog. Writing knowing that mostly only students I know are going to read the posts is different than writing knowing that countless people I've never met in person might read what I’m writing.

Finding a new take on an old problem, or a new insight into something tried and true, or something I think it worth talking about in print has been a challenge. Some posts came easier than others. When I’m talking about my students, the blog posts write themselves. Successes are always easy to articulate. Struggles are often hard to admit to and take some care to explain.

This blog challenge got me writing more reflectively, kept me writing, and gave me a new perspective on what it must be like to be a student faced with the task of writing for assignments that we give them. My struggle to find the right words mirror what I imagine their struggle must be. I have gained a new understanding of how to help them be find their words and put themselves out there, even if it is just for me to read.

The blogging challenge has also exposed me to so many new blogs and so many new ideas through the other challenge participants. It was hard to read every post I wanted to read. And I haven’t been brave enough to foray into commenting yet, so that is my next challenge. I want my students next year to learn to comment on each other’s blogs, so I need to learn how to do it myself so I can guide them effectively.
I intend to keep blogging, both here and on my book blog. I can’t keep up with blogging every day, but my goal is once or twice a week, including Slice of Life Tuesdays. It will make me a better writer, a better instructional coach, and a better teacher to reflect this way. It already has.

I would like to thank the Two Writing Teachers for posing this challenge to us. It was time well-spent, and I enjoyed the challenge.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

No Down Time

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

The major testing for our grades 3-8 is over, and we still have one more round with select grade levels for writing and science to go in April.

We also have ten weeks to go in our school year. While the pressure has lifted some, there is still work to be done. However, I find that right now, we seem to think that with testing over, we can all turn our focus to next year, rather than concentrating on what is still right in front of us.

Once the writing test is over for me, this becomes the best part of my year with my Pre-AP students. We still have The Miracle Worker, Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven to read together. We still need to write about our personal heroes and reflect on our middle school years by choosing our theme songs. We need to travel to Gettysburg to walk the battlefield with the 8th graders. The end of testing doesn't mean the end of the year, it just means that we can all take a deep breath and get back to teaching.

I know that we have to make plans for next year, and we are making a lot of changes in my building, so people are becoming anxious. We are going to a semi-block schedule and extending the time for ELA and math instruction into double what it has always been. We are adding in an academic support period for tutoring and forming grade-level teams. There will be staffing changes, and room re-assignments. All of this takes planning and meetings and packing and more meetings.

As a literacy coach, a department head, and a union president, I have to constantly be planning for next year, reflecting on what I've done, planning what I want to do, budgeting what I will need. There are MOAs to write for the changes that we need to make to contract language to accommodate the new adventures in scheduling and staffing. There is professional development to plan, and consultants to book. There is still data to collect to drive placements for next year.

It’s like this every year, but this year just feels different than others. Maybe it’s because the winter has been so long, maybe it is because we are getting out later this year after a late start in September, maybe it’s because next year is a year of huge changes, or maybe it is because we focused so much attention on making sure we were ready for the state testing that now we aren't sure what to do next.

Whatever the case may be, I’d like just a little more time before we throw away this year and move onto next in our minds. I want to enjoy my 8th graders before sending them away to high school. I’d like to reflect on what I've accomplished and finish up all the books I haven’t had a chance to read yet and need to share with my students. I’d like some time to go back and really look at what we've accomplished so we can make the right decisions about where we need to go next year.

Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury. This coming week is filled with meetings about all of the changes for next year. I have people asking me to help them plan for next year, and I have to get the final budget numbers in for the purchase of next year’s novels. I am hoping that, with all the looking ahead I have to do, I don’t miss what is right in front of me in the here and now.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Finding Their Voices

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

Yesterday I talked about how the best part of my job as a teacher of reading is helping students find the right book. The best part of my job as a teacher of writing is helping students find their voices.

I had a parent tell me the other day, while we were working on our short stories in Pre-AP, that her daughter had been begging her the night before to read the story she was working on, that there was finally homework her daughter wanted to do. Her daughter told her I was the only one who ever let them write something creative.

I didn't assign that story for homework. They had all week in class to work on it because it was testing week, and I wanted them to be able to work on something meaningful but that wasn’t “work.” This is not a student who likes to write, not a student who sees herself as a “good” writer. But this is a writer who was working at home when she didn’t have to because she wanted to write.

My students come to me at the beginning of the year with a formula for writing. They are used to being assigned a writing task with a specific purpose and not given much choice. They struggle when I say, “Write what you want.” They often have no idea how to craft a response without being told how many paragraphs, what content to include, and how to choose the words to best express their exact meaning. Most of all, very few of them have found their own voice.

For the first marking period we do “Meaningful Mondays.” I give them a quotation and ask them to respond. I comment on their quotations, but this free writing (which used to be Free Write Friday), tells me more about them as writers and people than any prompt or interest survey could. I gather a lot of formative data from these pieces. I watch how long it takes them to start writing, and how long it takes them to finish in relation to how much they wrote. I can look back over the nine entries and see how they choose to approach the quotations…personally or impersonally…and whether that change depending on the quotation. I see where their areas of need and strength are, and use those to drive mini-lessons and form revision partnerships. The content of their responses usually give me clues to what they consider to be important, how they feel about themselves in relation to the world around them, and what their life has been like. Fifteen minutes a week, and a wealth of information gained that helps me to drive my writing instruction for the rest of the year.

Formula writing has its place. There are rules to writing that must be followed in order for others to be able to extract meaning from a piece. But I believe that, much like we are duty-bound to honor student’s reading choices, we are also required to help students find their own voices when they write.

My students may not all come back advanced on the state writing test or be as prepared for their ninth grade teacher as she would like them to be, but I think most of my students leave my room having found their voices because I ask them to give me more of themselves rather than a "correct" response.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Mix and Match

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

Finding that one book that will ignite passion in a student who “doesn't like to read” is the best part of my job as a teacher of reading. It’s one of the reasons I added Library Science to my certifications. Sometime in the next five years, I hope to make the jump from the ELA classroom to the middle school library. I know it will be a huge change for me, not having a class to build those daily relationships with, but what I will still have is the chance to help kids build relationships with literature.

These last few weeks have been pretty successful for me. I have at least four kids who are wending their way through new series I introduced them to. I have two developing readers who have read an I Survived book I handed them in one day and successfully tested at 100% on AR on them the next. I have students lining up for the last books I book talked.  And I have students pulling books from my classroom library daily because they trust that if it’s on my shelf, it’s probably worth reading.

I don’t understand middle level reading teachers who don’t make time to read what the kids are reading. I don’t understand how you can possibly consider yourself a reading teacher or a librarian when you haven’t read more than one young adult/middle grade book a month, if that. I don’t understand English teachers who belittle what a student chooses to read rather than to validate it. And I don’t understand how we think it’s okay to require students to read two books at a time -- one for class and one for “pleasure” --  then turn around and say we don’t think reading is important enough to make time for it in our daily lives.

I am surrounded by those people where I work. I get it, not everyone has the kind of time I have, or is willing to make the time I make, to read. I don’t have children, I don’t have a lot of family obligations, and I can make my own schedules for my free time without having to accommodate too many other people. What I don’t have is a lot of free time. I spend a lot of time working…as a union president, as a literacy coach, as an ELA teacher, and as a volunteer for various school activities. When I don’t have the time to read, as I haven’t the last couple of months, I feel like I’m not doing my job, even though reading books to share with my students never feels like work.

Right now the students in my school have limited people they can go to for help finding books, and that is limiting our ability to help our students grow into the readers they were meant to be. So while I am sure that, down the road I will be anxious about giving up my traditional classroom and making the transition to librarian, I am anxious in a different way to see what I can accomplish with the time and resources to help 500 students find their perfect book. 

I’m going to need a bigger book budget!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

See How They Grow

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I finally found something good about Accelerated Reader.

This week I had my Pre-AP students, 8th graders, “analyze” their AR reading records from kindergarten until now. I haven’t done this before, but I needed a “filler” activity. And I had an ulterior motive…to gather intel on what the kids really think about AR, and what they remember about the program from elementary school where we still have incentives.

The amount of conversation this simple filler activity generated was amazing. Students were up around the room comparing records, many spent a lot of time looking up book covers to remember those very first books, and they were genuinely excited to see their independent reading career laid out before them.

I wandered around the room, asking questions to get them to think more deeply about what they were seeing, answering questions for them, and helping them figure out which books represented which year in school.

I also had them complete a reflection about their AR record, asking the following questions:
·       What trends do you notice in what you were reading (series, genres, periods where you tested a lot or not at all etc.)? What stands out to you the most as you look at your record.
·       How did your reading change from primary (K-2), to intermediate (3-5), to middle school (6-8)?
·       What do you think your record shows about your growth as a reader?
·       What do you think your record doesn't show about your growth as a reader?
·       One of the purposes of AR is to motivate younger readers to read to earn points. How do you feel about that as a motivator for reading?
·       What do you think are good ways to motivate kids to read?

As expected, the answers were all over the place. A lot of the students talked about how much they had read in primary, but not as much as in intermediate or middle school. I reminded them that we only require them to test on one book a marking period in middle school, so unless they were taking it upon themselves to test on every book they read beyond fifth grade, that might not be a fair analysis.

That led into a class discussion about the difference between being able to read and being a reader. Most of the students in my class are at least two grade levels ahead, and most of them are consistently advanced on the standardized tests. Looking at their reading records, most of these students have read over 300 books in their career, many even more than that.  However, over half of them admitted, in our discussion, that if I was not requiring them to read additional books for a blogging/AR grade, they would only read what they were assigned as whole-class reads. They are the most advanced readers in the school, but most of them no longer identify themselves as “readers.”

When I asked about the elementary incentives, again, most of them agreed that they read to get the points they needed for the parties and the awards. And in some respects, they are still only reading for incentives, now it just comes in the form of points in my gradebook.

I liked having students be able to see their “reading history” with AR. They enjoyed talking about their old friends Clifford and Arthur and Jack and Annie. But at the end of the day, it’s still all about the points for a majority of these students. Maybe it would happen anyway, that reading would take a backseat as they grow and their time becomes more divided into social and athletic activities, but I still can’t help but wonder if having students start their lives as independent readers counting points isn't causing them to become too reliant on external motivators to give them a reason to read.

My district still isn’t ready to dump the program. We have had it too long, and we cling to it like a raft in a stormy sea, afraid to let go because what if it really is help our students become better readers? However, I am committed next year to looking closely at the program and really using the data it provides to better assist our students to become readers, rather than students who can read. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Getting Creative

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

To celebrate standardized testing this week, I’m letting my Pre-AP kids get creative. There is no way after coming off of testing every day, my students are in any shape to come to class and really work. This is the week when I feel like it’s okay to let them be more creative, when I don’t feel the pressure of getting them ready for the test, or getting them ready for ninth grade. So we are writing creatively all week…short stories and mirror poems. I have students who are embracing this, but others are having a lot of difficulty.

My assistant principal has a first grader who is writing stories (and illustrating them) all the time. First graders love to tell and write stories. They don’t worry about finding an idea, adding details, or what someone will think if they read it. They just write.

And once upon a time, so did my eighth graders. I have two or three students each year who keep notebooks and flash drives full of fan fiction. But most of them, when I tell them they are going to have to write creatively, no longer have the confidence that they once had.


Is it because we don’t consider creativity to be important because it isn’t measured on the test? Is it because, as we age, we become more critical of ourselves and others and become afraid to put our words out there? Or is it because we are afraid that, in writing creatively, we will reveal more of ourselves that we intended?

We should never let our students get out of the habit of telling their stories. We should always be making time to let them be creative, not just as a break from “real work” during testing weeks.

Hopefully at the end of this week, my reluctant creative writers will see that they can still tell their stories…just like they did once upon a time. And hopefully next year I will find ways and time to incorporate creative writing into our whole year, not just save it for “writing recess” during testing week.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What's the Point?

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

My Pre-AP students have trouble reading for a purpose. These students are usually my most qualified readers, scoring well on standardized tests and being able to comprehend above grade level. By now my eighth graders are developing their reading styles…some read closely for details, others can’t recall simple facts but can tell you overall impressions of a story, and others just absorb one book and move quickly onto the next.

Setting a specific purpose for reading beyond gathering information or reading for enjoyment can be difficult, and asking students to read for more specific purposes challenges them. Setting the purpose for non-fiction is easier for students. Depending on the text, the main goal is to get the information out or analyze the opinion/argument being presented. Students can manage this easily with a set goal.

Fiction presents a different challenge. By now my students automatically analyze character, plot, and theme. They can determine point of view and how it influences the reader. But setting a purpose for close reading of literature becomes problematic when there are so many different areas in each book to focused on.

My students recently studied Night. I wanted them to trace the changing relationship of Elie and his father. But I also wanted them to connect with provocative passages, analyze the role religion played in his experience, and focus on the motif of the eyes. Obviously these were too many purposes to read for, so I had to choose one and just touch on the others in classroom discussion. So, I chose the father-son relationship as our purpose for reading , then I worried that I had not chosen wisely, that one student might have connected to the text better if I had chosen the role of religion, or if I had just allowed them to choose provocative passages. In the end it went well, but when we finished up I still felt like I should have done more with the text, focused them a different way.

Students need to be able to read for specific purposes. They need to know what the goal is, what to look for in a text, and how to extract what they need from text to reach the end goal. But sometimes, when it comes to reading literature, the best purpose for reading of all is to embrace the text and let each student determine why he or she is reading.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Reading in the Zone

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

My students and I were discussing changes in reading habits last week, and I confessed to them that I have been in a reading slump of late, not being able to settle down to focus on any one thing. They were shocked when I said I hadn't read anything much for almost three weeks, and one even asked if I was okay. I told him that no, I really wasn't, that there were too many things, nothing major, but all time-consuming and annoying, that were getting in the way of me being able to focus on reading. But more than that, what it really has come down to lately is that I am out of the reading zone because I don’t know what I want to read.

This weekend I did some clean-up of my piles…finished a couple of young adult sci-fi/fantasy trilogies, read a young adult mystery and a humor book from the public library that are due back next week, and started to wend my way through This Star Won’t Go Out so the John Green fans in my classroom can get their hands on it by the middle of the week.

When I look at the stacks of books I have and scroll through the e-books on my Kindle, I have multiple genres represented. I tend to cycle through genres, reading four or five fantasy before skipping over to read a few mysteries. I throw non-fiction in between fiction reads to clear my head of one story before starting another. And I usually only tackle one literary fiction title at a time before defaulting back to another genre.

I watch my students cycle through the same phases of reading preferences, zoning in and out. The girls in my Pre-Ap class who devoured Nicholas Sparks at the beginning of the year, are now all reading the Divergent series. Two of my boys are “taking a break” from the sports books for a while to read a couple of extra stories about the Holocaust from our past unit of study, but I imagine as they can begin to get outside and play, baseball books will be on their lists again. Many of the sixth graders can’t find anything they want to read after running out of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries.

Literature speaks to people in different ways at different times. Certain books and genres have certain appeal depending on the time of year, time of life, or mood of the reader. I hear other reading teachers complain that kids are reluctant to read outside of their comfort zones or don’t make time for reading, but if we really look at our adult reading lives, we find that we enter into those zones as well.

We need to honor our students’ reading cycles, as we want our own to be honored. Sometimes there is just too much going on to be able to focus on any one book, or it is too difficult to find one that meets their current needs. We need to practice a little patience and help them through the ruts in the reading road until they get into the zone again. We always manage to get back into the zone eventually; we need to teach our students how to find theirs.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Triple Threats

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Yesterday I talked about series fiction and how it is the characters that usually keep me reading. Some of my favorite series I have been reading for a decade or more, and I am reluctant to start any new series anymore, unless there is something about them that really catches my interest.

The rise of the trilogy is changing that reluctance to commit, for me and for my students. Trilogies are not a new phenomenon (see Lord of the Rings). But the Hunger Games and other trilogies are dominating the young adult market like never before.

A trilogy has a lot of appeal. You know that you will get to the end and have all the answers at some point in the near future. If you wait until all three are out, you can read them all in a row and get the whole story without having to wait every year for a new book. And, best of all, the author can tell a complete story over the course of three books, without running the risk of entering an endless loop of the same plot over and over again to try to draw out the series.

This weekend I read the conclusions of the Medusa Girls and Razorland trilogies. My students and I are anxiously awaiting the end to The Testing and The Selection trilogies. In the meantime, I still have the last of Gabrielle Zevin’s Birthright trilogy to finish. My students will be as glad as I am to have these trilogies finish up, not because we are tired of them, but because we can finally know what really happens in the end.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Character Development

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I have a lot of series books to catch up on, both adult and young adult. And yet the books keep on coming.

What is it about series that keep us reading? Sometimes, when the previous book has ended in a cliff-hanger, it’s the need to find out what happens next. For other series, it’s the comfort of knowing what you are getting, that the story will follow a certain pattern and provide a certain outcome.

For me, it’s always been about the characters. A lot of the series I read are mysteries. While the suspense is always there to draw me in, the ones that keep me coming back are the ones where the characters have a life outside of the mystery, where they age and change and grow. It’s like visiting old friends and catching up each time a new book in one of my favorite series comes out.

I have begun dropping some of my series. I talked about that with the kids the other day when I was book talking…when is it time to give up? I asked them why they like certain series what kept them reading. Almost always it had to do with them being able to identify with the characters. Sure they like the genre or the action of the story, but mostly it was about the characters and finding out what happens to them that keep them coming back to Percy Jackson and Greg Heffley.

Most of the series I have dropped are because the stories have become formulaic and the characters, even the main ones, are static. They don’t grow and change, they are stuck in and Groundhog Day cycle of having the same things happen to them over and over and over, and never being able to move on to something new. If I can’t connect to the characters, then I can’t connect to the story. The kids say drop series because they out-grow them if the characters don’t age with them and have the same experiences they do.

Characters are the easiest way for us to connect to literature, and those characters we meet can seem just as real as the people we interact with each day. This week my Pre-AP students will write short stories to give them a break between tests, and character development will be a key component of their evaluation. I am anxious to meet some great new characters this week.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Small Gains = Big Victories

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We finished up the last of our pre-state testing data conferences yesterday. Looking at the 111 students from my reading labs, the majority of them still have standardized testing data that is inconclusive as to what they may or may not do on the upcoming test. While some of our remedial students have gained two or more years of growth and are reading on or above grade level, there are still a lot who are showing growth but are still below grade level. What I learned from talking to students this week was that sometimes even the smallest gain can be a big victory.

For the students showing growth but still testing below grade level in middle school, even one year’s growth is a major victory. There have obviously been years where these students have not shown growth, or they would not be behind at this point. Many of these students are being raised by divorced parents, adoptive parents, grandparents, or other relatives. Many of these students are from low-income families. And most of them have things going on in their lives or learning issues that get in the way of them being able to make school a priority.

These students have worked hard for me, and I know that many of them still won’t be “proficient” once the testing is all said and done. Regardless of that fact, this week during data conferences, we let them know that we believe that they are working hard, that we believe that the growth they are showing is something they should be proud of, and that who they are matters more to us than their numbers.

Their little gains are big victories for all of us.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Poetry Play

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Earlier this month I blogged about how my students (and I) were not huge fans of poetry. I got a lot of comments from teachers who use poetry daily and couldn't imagine their classrooms without.

Needing a quick and easy activity for the week for my reading lab classes, I decided to grab the “fun” poetry from our library shelves: Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky, Dean Koontz, Judith Viorst, etc.

Yesterday my lab students had one task. Grab a book, read some poems, and then share with their friends. At first I got the moans and groans that I expected, so I opened Where the Sidewalk Ends and began reading some poem titles to get their attention focused.

Once they got their books, I started my data conferences. When I looked up 20 minutes later from the last conference, every head was buried in a book, and they were starting to whisper back and forth, gesturing to their pages.

I called time and told them to turn and share. Most of them got up and moved to where their comfort peers were, and I walked around getting them to monitor their conversations. The majority of groups were on task and talking poetry, reading each other the lines they found funny, and trading books so that they could read the rest of the poem their friend has shared.

What the teacher learned today: free choice, no pressure to analyze, and silly rhymes = engagement with poetry.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

March Madness

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Our varsity girls’ basketball team made it to the quarter-finals of the state play-offs this week. Tuesday night we faced our toughest opponent, a rematch of our district championship rival from a game that gave us our first loss of the season. This meeting in the state playoffs did not end as we had hoped it would, either, and we ended with a record of 28-2 for the season.

I meet these girls in middle school (or earlier) as their teacher in the classroom, and watch them grow into varsity athletes as I keep their stats on the sideline. I believe in the power of sports. Through sports these young women are developing character that will allow them to meet the challenges life throws at them. They learn to work as a team, and learn to take personal responsibility for their actions. They learn to balance school and sport, work and play. They will take the lessons from the classroom and the gym to college and then out into the real world. And they will succeed, many of them, because of their time spent on the basketball court and other playing fields.

It is time for the madness to end for the season. It has been a long road to get to this point, but every step has been worth it. The seniors are ready to do exactly what we have prepared them to do, head out into the world and become the next generation’s leaders. For those left behind on the court, the underclassmen, their time will come soon enough.

Being able to help kids on the journey to become who they are meant to be is not a gift I give, but the gift I have been given. Even though we did not walk off the court victorious, on nights like last night, I wouldn't trade my job for anything else the world.

Building the Story

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I was lucky enough this year to get some sets of Lego Story Visualizers for my reading lab classes. The sets come with a teacher’s manual and software components, but we have mostly just been building and telling stories. Sometimes I have them build a scene from something they are working on in their general reading classes, other times I give them a story starter from the manual, and then there are the days they are allowed to free-build.

When they have free-build days, the things they come up with are amazing. Pieces that are meant to be dogs become horses, handcuffs become bridges, and plain old Lego blocks are transformed into dragons. They are always asked to move from group to group at the end of class and tell each other about what they have built. Some of my more tech-savvy students are using their iPhones and iPads to create live-action stories with iMotion.

Some students can write stories, some can verbalize them, and some need to build them. But no matter what the method of delivery, ever student has a story to tell. We just have to help them find the means to let their stories be told.  

Monday, March 17, 2014

Short Texts...Big Rewards

Slice of Life is sponsored on Tuesdays by Two Writing Teachers. For the month of March we are posting a slice each day on our blog. Join in! 

Yesterday I had an entire afternoon free. I was caught up enough on my stuff for school that I felt I could reasonably take off some time to attack the stacks of books that have been building up since basketball season started in November. I picked up several books, read the dust jackets, put them down. I have four books from the public library, a couple dozen from the school library, and hundreds of choices on my Kindle. I couldn't choose one that I wanted to dig into. Some of it is that I know I will have no time to read during the week, and I hate starting a book that I know I won’t get back to until at least Thursday.

So I turned to some of the short e-books that I have downloaded. The e-story has blossomed into bridges between novels in a series, prequels or alternate points of view to round out backstory and characters from a series, and stand-alone stories while an author works on the next full-length book. I like these short works. I know that I don’t have to commit hours to them, that I can get a full story in one short period of time, that I can get a reading "fix." Short stories are like chocolate for me. Just a little taste to satisfy the craving.

We talk a lot these days about complex texts, but just because texts are short doesn't mean they are simple. We have an entire section in our library of short story collections that only ever get used by teachers. Some of those stories are great gateways for kids to find authors they love, sample a genre, or just get back into the reading groove.

Next week we standardized test, and I don’t want my students to have to work very hard in class. I want them to leave all their energy in the testing room. It may be time for us to break out those story collections and see what short works we can find to pass the time. Who knows what doors will open if I let them pick short stories to read and see where the stories take them?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Testing, Testing

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One week until our state reading and math tests start. We have had more focus than ever this year on using data to monitor and adjust student instruction, I have had more conversations with staff about how to use data than I thought I would ever find time for, and we are looking at a complete schedule overhaul for next year to get more time to meet individual student needs.

This past week my Pre-AP students asked me why we have to take so many tests. My sarcastic response was, “Because the state hates me.” When I explained to them that the test was about me, not them, about measuring whether I was a good teacher, not what they know, they honestly were speechless (and for this class that is nearly impossible).

We lament all the time that there is too much at stake with these tests, that they are not fair to anyone, and that they can’t possibly measure what is important. All of that is true, but unfortunately, they are the law.

I’m spending this week talking to kids individually about the tests, going over their progress monitoring data with them, gently reminding them to do their best, and reminding them that no matter what the outcome we will not let one number define them.

Then we will lock them in a room for at least 90 minutes a day, read them directions that are impossibly convoluted, and hover over them while they fill in circle after circle and write line after line while we ignore every instinct that screams to help them when we see them start to falter.

One week, so much at stake, and none of it is about measuring what really matters.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Think, See, Wonder

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No matter what my topic, I am finding that music and visual arts have become an important staple in my ELA classroom.

I have used music more in my classroom this year than ever before. I have used it to each voice, and to teach mood and tone. I have used music lyrics to teach about allusion and other literary devices. I let Eminem teach them about “word bending,” as he calls it, to get the cadence and rhyme that makes poetry so different from other forms of literature. I let them choose song lyrics to analyze for figurative language as a check for understanding. When I showed Schindler’s List, we spent a lot of time talking about how directors and producers use music as cues for the audience.

Visual images from photographs and works of art have also helped me get my students thinking and writing about the topics and themes we are exploring. Using the “Think-See-Wonder” cognitive strategy has given my students not only a new way to connect with visual images, but also with written words. They can now “see” more in the written word because they have honed their ability to look beyond the surface of a work of art for the little things.

Music and other arts are vital to the sustainability of a society. Without providing ways for our children to develop the creative abilities that most display as toddlers and pre-schoolers, we are doing them a huge disservice. In this age when tested subjects like ELA, math, and science are emphasized, the arts are losing out. Programs are being cut and students are pulled from the creative, hands-on classes for remediation. Often the students who need to be remediated are also the ones who most benefit from the classes that they are pulled from.

Our students all need to be able to think, see, and wonder to process and interact with the world around them. Providing them the creative opportunities they need means that we cannot continue to relegate the arts to a position of unimportance in schools without damaging the foundation of society.

Friday, March 14, 2014


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Yesterday my assistant principal was in my room waiting to talk to me while I got my Pre-AP kids set up with their writing assignment for the day. Even though we write all the time, even though they had a Google doc with the assignment and the Focus Correction Areas spelled out, and even though I added in verbal directions, we still had to go through about 15 minutes of questions, clarifications, and complaining.

We don’t pre-write in Pre-AP; we pre-whine. I didn't realize until my principal commented on it that yes, we go through this process every time I give a graded writing assignment. It is how we get ready to write.

And this is actually progress. When I got them at the beginning of the year, they were afraid. Not of me (well, a little of me), but mostly of not getting it “right” the first time. My writing assignments are deliberately broad, and the intent is to give my writers the freedom to go in whatever direction the subject takes them. At first, they were paralyzed. They were so focused on getting their usual "A" that they could barely function without knowing what the “right” answer was supposed to be.

I spend the first month teaching them how to talk the talk. They are not allowed to ask me, “Is this okay?” My answer is always, “No.” They have to be specific and ask about thesis statements, transitions, examples, style, anything at all about their writing, but it has to be something specific. At the end of the first month, when I repeated this request for the tenth time to one of my students, his frustrated response was, “My specific question is what do I have to do to get an A?”

And that is always my largest issue. My Pre-AP students come to me every year wanting to know what the code is to get the A’s they are used to. I tell them on day one that an "A" doesn't always mean they are learning. I tell their parents the same thing. I don’t emphasize the grade in my class. The magic is in the learning process. It’s a hard sell every year.

After the pre-whining today, and after they had settled down to really dig into the assignment, the same student who just wanted his "A" appeared at my desk about halfway through the period with his Chromebook, and said, “Can you tell me if this is okay?” I just laughed and said, “What do you think?” He shook his head at me and went back to work. I have to give him credit. He’s been persistent, just hoping that I’ll give in just one time and overhaul his essay for him. When we came back from our break between class periods, he came back to my desk and asked me to look at his concluding sentence, we conferenced about why it wasn't working for him, and he went back to fix it.

Despite their need to pre-whine, these students have come a long way since September. They have the state writing test in four weeks, and no matter what the scores come back as, they can’t possibly measure the growth of these learners. I’m just glad I won’t be the one proctoring their testing rooms when they figure out that they can’t pre-whine before they write their test essays!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Attention, Please!

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Sometimes I get so bogged down in what I have to do for work that it becomes hard to take time off, even when I’m at home. While I've gotten good at avoiding work (last night there were two things in my school bag that I had every intention of doing…didn't happen), I haven’t gotten better at managing my school time. I put things off all week because by the time I usually get home, make dinner, and sit down to work, I can’t focus beyond an hour or so.

That is taking its toll on the baby of the house. Two-year-old Maggie, the grey tabby, is demanding in a way the other two are not. Her acting-out behaviors are escalating, to the point that last week, she decided to get the laptop off my lap by pulling herself up to the top of my flat screen until I would get up to remove her. (Like most of my seventh graders, she is impervious to my voice commands.)

This weekend, I gave myself some down time on Saturday and read for fun, and Maggie spent most of the day on my lap as I read. And she left the TV alone the rest of the weekend, even when my lap was occupied by the computer. Conclusion: she just needed some quality attention, and she was going to find a way to get it.

Tuesday night, when I got home after being gone 15 hours because of work and a basketball game, I spent 15 minutes on the computer catching up on emails, during which time she scaled the TV three times. Conclusion: someone was not amused that I was gone all day.

Lesson learned: I need to take time to focus on the “little things” so they don’t get out of control. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Gorillas and the Holocaust

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When did we stop giving our kids credit for being able to handle the tough stuff?

This past couple of months, my eighth grade Pre-AP students have been studying the Holocaust.They have researched, read Night, watched Schindler’s List, and read poems written by the children of Terezin. They were apprehensive about starting this unit. The class is predominantly girls, and many of them had expressed to me that they were afraid to see Schindler’s List, worried about the images in documentaries and primary sources used for their research project, and concerned about the vivid descriptions in Night.

I have to admit, there were a couple of times when I almost cancelled the viewing of Schindler’s List, thought about not showing the documentary I use to introduce the unit, and giving them the less inflammatory choices for the research project. However, in the end, I knew this content was too important, so we walked this difficult path together.

Now that we are coming to the end, they are expressing their appreciation for the time we spent studying this period in history through literature and film. They have written some amazing responses, we have had some intense discussions, and I know that they have learned some things about their capacity for empathy and their ability to handle the tough stuff.

At the same time, I was helping my teachers in grades four and five select new whole-class novels for next year. Fourth grade wanted The One and Only Ivan; fifth grade wanted Wonder. I had read Wonder, and was concerned about some of the content from the perspectives of Auggie’s sister and her boyfriend as it might relate to fifth graders.

Turned out I was worried about the wrong book. It was The One and Only Ivan that parents were not in favor of. The death of Stella and the treatment of Ruby were of great cause for concern, despite assurances that the teachers would be handling this sensitive material carefully with the students and focusing on the positive messages in the novel. In the end, both books were approved, but it wasn't an easy win for Ivan.

From these two experiences, my take-away is that we need to give our students credit for being able to handle anything with the right support. Literature helps students understand the world through the safety net of the pages of a book, before they have to confront those situations in real life. The kids can handle the tough stuff, we just need to give them a chance to show us what they are made of.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

What's With All the Dead People?

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My sixth grade reading lab students just finished Esperanza Rising and Out of the Dust in their general reading classes. We were discussing those two books in class on Friday, and the general consensus was that most of them preferred Out of the Dust to Esperanza Rising.

During the course of the conversation, one boy spoke up and asked, “How come someone dies in every book we read?” (Previously they had read Among the Hidden and Tuck Everlasting.) We stopped to try and answer that question, and I shared with them that, once upon a time, when I was teaching The Outsiders, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Bud, Not Buddy to seventh graders, one of them had voice a similar question, “Why don’t any of these kids have parents?”

I read a lot of middle grade and young adult fiction, and in a large majority of it, you will find a character with deceased parents or siblings, or losing a friend or family member during the course of the book. In middle grade books, this tends to be grandparents or parents, or an occasional friend or sibling. In young adult novels for the more mature readers, friends seem to be the most common casualties. And forget about fantasy…the battles in those novels almost always leave more than a few people dead. This is not a new trend. Six people die in three days in Romeo and Juliet, and let’s not even start to number the casualties in Hamlet and Macbeth.

What my sixth graders came up with, when it was all said and done, was that death is a part of life, and the death of someone we love can cause such a deep hurt that sometimes it feels like you are all alone. Books are a way to connect to someone on the page who might be going through the same thing, which is easier sometimes than reaching out to someone real.

They are going to start reading The Breadwinner soon as part of a cross-curricular unit with social studies. I didn't have the heart to tell them to brace themselves...they have one more dead person to go this year.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Validating Reading Choices

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There are a lot of titles I don’t post on my Goodreads shelf. I will read anything…mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, depends on my mood, on the time I have to invest in a book, and why I am reading. But some of the titles I don’t share, simply because I don’t want to admit that I read something that is not purposeful or that I fear someone else might judge me for reading. When I talk books with my high school librarian, she is self-deprecating when she admits her addiction to vampire romance novels. 

Many of my students are no different when I ask them to talk about what they are reading. I usually try to start my remedial classes off with sharing what I've been reading, and asking the kids to share back. I have students who very rarely share, and most of them are girls. They don’t like to say out loud that they are reading Dork Diaries, while the boys can’t wait to tell me that they are reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Thankfully in my Pre-AP class, which has an even ratio of three girls to every one boy, the girls are not shy about reading and sharing. They pass Nicholas Sparks and Jodi Picoult around proudly. They read Vampire Academy and The Chronicles of Valdimir Tod without fear that someone will tell them that vampire fiction isn't “real reading.” They blog about what they read with passion and personal connection.

So what about the girls in the other classes? When did we create an educational culture that judges girls on what they read, but not boys? When we talk about students in our student success meetings, we focus a lot of time on boy and their data and behavior. We seem to expect girls to be better behaved than boys, and lose patience when they don’t conform. We expect girls to be better writers, better readers, and to read what we hand them without complaint, while we make sure everything we ask them to read is relevant to the boys. Middle school girls are hard to handle. They are trying to find their place in social structures that are unforgiving of mistakes and where everyone is judging everyone else. And their teachers aren't helping when it comes to giving them the freedom to read what they chose and validating those choices.

All reading has value. If we want our students to value reading, we have to validate ALL of their reading choices, not just the ones we approve of or would read ourselves. Should we be guiding our students to challenge themselves, try something new, expand their horizons? Absolutely. But if the point of reading is to have students connect to the world around them, who are we to judge what and how they choose to make those connections when given freedom to choose?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Power of Poetry

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When I poll the 8th graders in my Pre-AP class each year, very few of them will admit to liking poetry. Even when we talk about music being poetry, they will counter-argue with, “But we don’t like ‘real’ poetry.” And I have to agree with them. I don’t like “real” poetry much, either. I don’t remember any teacher or professor, other than one, teaching poetry as anything other than the sum of its parts, something to be broken down and analyzed, not appreciated as a total work. The joy we found in the poetry of our childhood – Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose – becomes overshadowed by the analysis of form and literary devices.

I have always struggled to find a way to connect students to poetry without tearing it apart line by line, and what has worked for me the most are poetry novels.  Reading for me has always been about stories, the longer the better. Authors like Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, and Sharon Creech amaze me with their ability to tell entire stories, some with multiple story lines, using only poetic forms. Our students, as part of their curriculum, now read Out of the Dust in 6th grade. They just finished it, and while my 6th graders said it was hard, they liked it better than the book it was paired with, Esperanza Rising. My Pre-AP students are reading Requiem as our last component of the Holocaust unit. As we work through it, we will also look at the poems that survived the Terezin camps, and they will consider the question of why the children of Terezin immortalized their thoughts about what was happening to them using poetry instead of prose.

The Common Core doesn't address poetry in any meaningful way, but we know that students will be tested on their reading abilities using poems. If we embed poetry into our instruction, rather than treat it as a separate entity, perhaps our students could come to understand the value of poetry in helping connect to other pieces of literature, and to understand that poetry is sometimes the best way to express those deeper feelings that prose can’t quite capture.

Poetry has power, and our students need to know how to tap into that power. We need to help our students make the right connections so that they can answer the question posed in the Apple commercial, “What will your verse be?”

Saturday, March 8, 2014


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I was a book hoarder long before hoarding became fodder for reality television. Right now the kitchen table holds stacks of books, the spare room has piles everywhere, the bookshelves in the basement are crammed full, and my Kindle folders are overflowing. There will never be enough time to read everything I have set aside or downloaded, and yet I continue to accumulate more.

E-books have increased my ability to horde books, and they have changed the way I read them. Getting a new book by a favorite author the day it is released at the touch of a button is definitely a plus, and it is often cheaper in e-format than in a print copy. I also prefer to read for information on my Kindle. I can highlight, annotate, and search for relevant or marked points more easily. And the portability can’t be beat. I can sit in a professional meeting and access the information I have marked on the e-copy, without digging through papers that I have to haul to the meeting just in case I need them. The convenience of being able to read anywhere with my phone, iPad, or e-reader has come in handy more than once. And I don’t have to find a place or a home for the book once I have finished it; it stores in my cloud. I hear people say all the time, “I still like the feeling of a book in my hands.” And while I do as well, I am finding more and more that I prefer the crispness of the text on a screen, the ability to change the font size to suit my changing vision, the cost of the e-book compared to the hard copy, and the ease of access and portability.

For all their benefits, the biggest drawback of e-books is that they limit the social relationships I have built around books in the past. I try to book talk to my students often, and it is a must to have the books I talk about in hard copy to lend out when getting students excited about books.  But when it comes to talking about books with my adult book buddies, I rarely can hand a book to a friend and say, “You HAVE to read this so we can talk about it!” My friends and I often attend author signings as a social activity. I have many books in my basement library that have been signed by those authors we have met. Now, when I go to see an author, I most often have already read the book in an e-format, so I don’t buy one to have signed. Occasionally I will buy two copies of a book: one e-book to keep, annotate, and refer back to, and one hard copy to lend out. But I only find myself really doing this with professional development books anymore, and that has limited the literary aspect of my social life.

My students also seem to be split between their reading of traditional books and e-books, with some not liking to read on their devices if given the choice between that and an actual book. Students also like to share books with each other. When we go to the library to get books, I watch them “trade up” on the way down so that they can check out the book their friend has just read and recommended. Our classroom is built around a community of reading, and being able to share actual books with each other is integral to the building and maintenance of that community. While blogging about their books has broadened the ability of my students to share information and ideas about books, that exchange of ideas can’t really reach any depth without the readers having access to the titles being discussed. I do not book talk or blog any book that our students can’t access in our school or classroom library, because many students cannot often afford to purchase the books I talk about, and they still don’t like to borrow from other libraries.

The positives and negatives of e-books is still a fine balance, and ultimately is a personal preference for the individual reader. This weekend I have a stack of four print books that I want to read from the library shipment we got this week, and several e-books that I am dying to get to, including one that I have from a week ago that needs to be finished first. And I am expecting a copy of Falling in Love with Close Reading to be arriving shortly in the mail today. No matter what the format, reading is reading, and the more we and our students read and talk about what we read, the better we can connect to the world around us. 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Accelerated Reader

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For almost 20 years, my district has used Accelerated Reader in grades K-8. In grades K-5, we have used it as an incentive program to encourage independent reading; in 6-8 it has been a component of project-based independent reading. More recently we have incorporated the STAR tool as part of our student data profiles, which has been both harmful and helpful in equal measures. Two years ago, when I became the reading department head, overseeing the program K-8 became part of my responsibilities. This was also when we restructured our two K-5 buildings into a K-3 literacy center and a 4-5 STEM building.  The more time I spend looking at how we are using AR to create a culture of “readers,” the more I question whether or not this type of program is really helping our students, or if it is, in the long run, giving them a false sense of their ability to interact with text in a meaningful way because they can pass low-level comprehension tests.

The push for reading of quantity over reading for quality is the first issue I am struggling with. I see how our primary students strive to earn incentive points, and I see a place for it in the grand scheme of supporting emergent readers and fostering an excitement for reading. But the older they get, the less effective the program seems to be in increasing comprehension, as students are not able to delve more deeply into layers of the books they read.

The other big issue I have is how we use STAR reading levels to discourage readers from picking books they want to read and forcing them into a “reading range.” It is much easier to use those numbers to protect students from struggling by giving them a book “on their level” that they don’t want to read, than to allow them to choose a more challenging book and providing individualize assistance and strategies to help them access it. There is a fine balance between letting students struggle with texts they really want to read, and having students become so frustrated with reading that they just give up altogether.

I want the classrooms in my district to be places where students, when given a choice, are free to read what they want to read, regardless of their prescribed book levels. I want students to be able to dive into a book and surface with a deeper understanding of the world around them. And I want them, above all, to know that reading itself is a reward and that the prize is the connections they make with the text that help them learn and grow as a person and not just a reader. I just don’t know if AR, beyond the primary grades, is the means to that end.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Bridging the Gap with Literature Circles

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I am in love with the classroom described in The Book Whisperer. I want that for my students, for all the middle school students in my building. Most of my ELA colleagues are on board, but of course, we do not quite have the resources, the experience, or the confidence to just jump in with both feet to make it work well. Also, most of the classrooms I read about are using it at the 4-5-6 level; very little is written about reader’s workshop for seventh and eighth grades. And to prepare for the rigor of high school literature courses, the students do need some experience in close reading of common, complex texts so they can handle Shakespeare and the demands place on them to respond to text come ninth grade.

One easy way I see to bridge that gap between doing traditional whole class reading of a common text and a full-blown reader’s workshop is with literature circles. Lit circles can even be done with the whole class read to start. Using a whole class read as a lit circle choice allows for differentiation with the grouping, increases student collaboration and interaction, and gets the teacher comfortable with the management practices of monitoring student self-directed reading by having the ability to conference about and have students respond to a work that the teacher knows well.

Using traditional literature circles where each circle is using a different text creates a bigger bridge, because the students do have more of a choice in what they select, but there is still common ground to foster the collaboration and writing piece of the reader’s workshop.  Much like using the whole class read in literature circles, students and teacher can “learn the ropes” for independent reading and monitoring, while still having the comfort of common ground that a limited amount of titles provides.

Students have always been required to read independently in our middle school, doing one extra “book project” a marking period in addition to whole group texts. This year in Pre-AP, I decided to take full advantage of the Google Apps on our Chromebooks and the inspiration I got from The Book Whisperer to have the kids create book review blogs to match mine. They have to post three times a marking period, and instead of me worrying about what “level” their book is, I have challenged them to pick something fun to balance the heavy reading we are doing as a whole class. I was amazed at the first posting we did. Students who never “talked” about books with their peers were excited to have others read their blogs about books. And while the novelty of that first post has worn off, they do all check each other’s blogs and have built within our classroom a culture of readers who don’t even need me to guide them to texts. They have formed their own “book clubs” within our classroom.

Without having tried a true reader’s workshop model, I can’t really say that the lit circles would be a good bridge to that, but it seems to make sense that they could.  If we decide as a department that we want to try reader’s workshop next year, I would hope that having these options would allow us all some measure of success with our current limit on resources and experience. Easing into the process could help us build up the courage to tackle the real thing. I do know that the success I have had with students simply blogging their thoughts about books rather than completing an project that analyzes the book has given me a small glimpse of what my classroom could be like if I had the courage to abandon the whole class novels and adopt a true reader’s workshop.

If anyone has any helpful suggestions or words of advice about how you are using reader’s workshop with middle school students, I would love to hear from you.