Three Things Thursday

3things-thursday

#1:  Matt de la Peña: From Reluctant Reader to Best-Selling Author

In my community, we don’t respect males who are sensitive, but what these guys and boys don’t realize is we need it more than anybody. We need to learn empathy through watching characters in a novel.

Okay, okay, I know this is really a podcast, BUT it’s Matt de la Peña!  This is such a great podcast on his journey from a kid who didn’t want to read to becoming closer to his dad through books to becoming a best selling author.

#2:  Kwame Alexander on How to Excite Kids about Summer Reading

I have this mantra that I believe: Books are like amusement parks, and sometimes you gotta let kids choose the rides.

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Kwame Alexander.  You can read the interview or listen to it or both.  Every time I hear Kwame Alexander I walk away inspired.  I love his honesty, his humor, and his enthusiasm.  Enjoy this lyrical interview!

#3:  My Big Fat Secret to Holding Kids Accountable for Reading by Justin Stortz

So I guess my big fat secret to holding kids accountable for reading is realizing that you can’t. Not really anyway. Teachers can’t make students read. I think kids need to know that. It’s what gives them the power and responsibility.

I found this blog post via another blog post on Read Write Reflect blog post which referenced Teri Lesesne’s blog post about student engagement which referenced another post on this blog post about reading logs.  I agree with a lot of what they all said.  Honestly, though I like a reading log; I keep one myself on Goodreads. But the reading log is for me — not for a grade.  All of these posts pushed me to think about how I can take away the artificial feel of reading logs and make reading (and reading logs, if you so choose) more organic.

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When we fail. . .

2016-02-09 09.53.18I took a hiatus from my blog during January to work on my dissertation. My chair told me I needed to have a complete draft by the end of January to graduate in May. I didn’t make the deadline. (I am now shooting for completion by April to graduate in July.)

This is the season for college applications, which means the season of writing lots of recommendations and editing lots of admission essays. A question I see that keeps popping up for college applicants as well as job applicants—in some manner or another—is name a time you’ve failed and how you overcame.

In my English 10 classes, we are working on our Shakespeare themed units. I wanted to do something different with this unit, and I wanted to provide choice. I planned what I thought was a great structure to do that. I would be lying if I said this unit had been a success. There was something lacking in the unit.

Failure has been on my mind.

What do you do when you are a teacher and you feel like you didn’t succeed, or more 2016-02-09 10.58.18bluntly put, failed at a lesson or unit? Reflect, self-assess, make notes and adjustments, learn, and do better.

But also, be okay…no be more than okay, be proud that you took a risk, you tried something new, you learned, you grew as an educator (and probably as a person) and your students will benefit from this. Celebrate that!

We have a responsibility to our students, to our profession, and to our future to reflect on our practice. We have a responsibility to make sure that we are reading current research, engaging in proven professional development, and learning from a community of leaders in our field.  We have a responsibility to make sure that we are growing as educators and we are putting that into practice so that our students are growing as learners and citizens.  But if we are doing that, if we are measuring ourselves by the best education has to offer, if we are stepping out of our comfort zone to do what is right, then we also have a responsibility to let ourselves fail, reflect on our learning from the failure, and go back the next day ready to try (with tweaks) again.

I was quite bummed about my unit. I had been so excited about it, and I was frustrated that it didn’t come to fruition as I had envisioned. I was talking with a colleague about my frustrations with the unit. She asked me why I thought it didn’t go like I had envisioned. I responded with something like, “I don’t know. Something just isn’t right.”

The question haunted me. I needed to really reflect: What was it that specifically that went wrong? What was I not happy with? Why did it not go like I wanted? How could it have gone different? AND what did go right?

I realized timing was a bit of an issue with this unit. Since timing became an issue, I didn’t focus as much on reading and writing skills to make up for loss of time. Choice was another issue. Although I didn’t dictate how students wrote in this unit, I felt I forced them into the box of one particular lens for too long. I should have started with the teacher-directed lens and then let them explore others on their own.

Now that I named the failure, I know what to do differently, what to do better next unit.

But I also had to think about what went right. Students’ final tasks as well as their online discussion about the texts showed a real sense of understanding—way beyond the surface level. Students weren’t just reading a Shakespeare play because we always teach a Shakespeare play. They had purpose and direction. Students were able to discuss themes across texts—they talked about the impact of the theme of deception not only in the play they studied for this unit, but also in their independent novels, informational texts, and other Shak2016-02-10 11.14.40.jpgespearean plays.

[Side note: One thing I did make sure we did was have 10 minutes of class reading time for independent novels three to four and sometimes five days a week. After I commented on how I loved seeing a particular student with two books in hand, she said, “It’s because of you. You made us read, and now I can’t stop.” That’s a success.]

Mary Ehrenworth once said something to the effect of it is worse to keep teaching as we’ve always taught than to try to do right by students and not be perfect. I was far from perfect in this unit, but I know I tried to do right by my kids, and in doing so, the failure unit helped my kids grow more as readers and writers than by not doing anything different.

If you want to see some of the end results from this unit, look at these examples and this student created music video.  The final project (which accompanied a paper, a online Socratic discussion, and reading journals) was a creative piece on how a character they studied viewed deception presented from the character’s point of view.  This part of the unit was successful.  Many of them also discussed other themes in their interpretation.

Bonus Read:  Pernille Rip seems to continually challenge me with her thoughtful posts.  And she always seems to know what I’ve been discussing with my colleagues.  I love her openness to conversation about hot topics and her fearlessness in tackling them head-on.  If you have found yourself in a discussion on whole class novels, I suggest you read her post, “So You Teach a Whole Class Novel – A Small Idea to Help.


This class is real life

As a student was leaving my class the other day, she remarked, “This class is real life.”

“Reading and writing is life,” I quipped back.

She smiled. “You know what I mean. Classes aren’t always like real life.”

And I know she is right. So many times what we do in class is in a bubble—it’s things that we deem important but have little or no direct connection to students’ present lives, nor their future lives outside our four walls. (By the way, Justin Tarte has an excellent post on why we should stop using the term “real life.”)

I’ve made a very concerted effort this year to make class more reflective of life. I want my class to be an extension of life, a space to examine life, and a safe place to try out our ideas about life.

Below are 5 examples of what we’ve been up to in Room 2414. Some ways I’ve tried to doFacebook Page 3 this are new this year; others have been tweaked or changed from previous years.

Social Action: Three years ago, I was challenged to have my students use reading, writing, and speaking to do something to selfless to impact their world. Mary Ehrenworth says, “We have to teach toward social justice & personal empowerment or there would be no reason to teach at all.”

So I developed a multi step social action performance task that my sopho2014-12-09 12.27.43mores complete throughout the course of the year. You can see an overview of the assignment here.

If you are wanting to implement something of this nature, I suggest using the following books as references: Randy Bomer and Katherine Bomer’s For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action; Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice; and Barbara Lewis’s The Teen Guide to Global Action. I’ve also posted other resources on my Pinterest Social Issue & Justice board.

Each year I am so moved by the comments students make in their final reflection. A few of their comments are below. I also included three of the culminating videos from former students (Domestic Abuse and Feeding the Hungry video links are here). I agree with Mary; this is why we teach.

  • In my opinion, most projects are just for a grade to be put in, but this was more about opening yourself up to the truth in life. I think it was about finding out who you really are and how to use your positive traits to make a difference.
  • I realize that the point of this project was not only to help benefit those in need, or to change how people view an issue. It was so much more than that. The project was to show those in our class that we are all people, we all have feelings, and all of us go through struggles, both big and small. It helped me realize that I’m not the only one who has struggled with their self-image and that even when I thought I was alone, there will always be people, somewhere, willing to listen.
  • Probably about a week ago, we were setting a date and time to go drop our donations off at Loaves and Fishes and I had a sort of epiphany. I realized that what we’re doing really does matter and even though it may not seem like we’re doing a lot, we are. We can’t just sit back and wait for the next guy to do it just because we aren’t the president or Senate. We aren’t even eighteen yet and we can still take action!
  • When we asked people at our school to leave an encouraging message for someone with suicidal thoughts, I honestly was expecting crazy messages. In high school, you always have those people who are going to have immature and rude things to say regardless of the purpose, but shockingly most of our messages were so sweet and inspirational. These messages included bible verses, inspirational sayings, and even personal experiences sharing their own suicidal thoughts and how they were overcome. It really opened my eyes to know that some of my fellow [students], people I might see in the hallway five days a week, actually shared some of the same concerns we discovered in our research.

Relevant application text: We’ve been working on argument this unit. I’m a HUGE fan of George Hillocks’s Teaching Argument Writing. The book (you can get a sample chapter here) gives several ways to teach argument through progression of relevant texts and situations. My students have been engaged in learning, have a deeper understanding of arguments (and the importance of each part of argument), and are more effective in developing and analyzing arguments.

In his foundation chapters, Hillocks discusses how crime shows and court cases exhibit the work we are teaching students. I took two of the texts he mentioned, CSI (season 1, episode 3) and the Supreme Court Case Scott v. Harris, and created extension lessons. You can access the transcript online, or you can use a condensed version (with instructions) I created for my classes.

Students loved using what they we had learned about argument in analyzing these text. There was much rich discussion about claims, evidence, warrants, counterclaims, rebuttals. Both of these text provided complex, rigorous examples that required the students too look closely, go back to the text, and think about the way claims were made and evidence presented. They learned so much more than if they had looked at an artificial text that neatly displayed each element of argument. And, dare I say, they had fun doing it.

Other texts we have used in the argument unit can be found on my Pinterest Argument Text Set board.  More to be added here as we continue through this unit.

Audience: I find providing an authentic audience for my students is hard sometimes, but I also feel it is incredibly important. It is something that I am working hard to do in my class this year. After we completed our memoirs, I had students share their memoirs with an adult and asked the adult to share some written comments with them. I wasn’t sure how this would turn out, but I have been pleasantly surprised. Students asked a variety of adults, including parents, grandparents, former teachers, and even administrators. The adult feedback has been meaningful, instructive, and even humorous at times.

File Sep 23, 1 28 46 PMOne of my favorites was when a student shared her story about an ambulance ride. The student had leukemia when she was very young, but she doesn’t tell people. She doesn’t want to be seen as a victim or have people treat her differently. She asked for a former teacher to read and comment on her story. When she got his comments back, she immediately came to my room, crying. She was so moved by the support she received and realized she could be a support for others.

With this type of response, I don’t know how I could ever go back to being the only audience for their work. I will be exploring ideas and ways to connect students with authentic audiences throughout the year.

Article of the Week: I totally took this idea from one of my heroes, Kelly Gallagher. He very clearly articulates the power behind using an article of the week on his website. He also posts links to the articles he uses. I use this website, Newsela (which allows you to change the Lexile level of the same article), and other articles that I come across. I post articles I use to my Pinterest Articles board.

At the beginning of the year, students often struggle with sharing their thoughts on the subjects. We learn how to talk, to support or disagree respectfully, to listen, and how to dig deeper on topics. I am often surprised at how little my students know about the world around them, and I feel this is an excellent way to connect world events with what we are studying and to help them become more educated citizens of the world.

Choice in reading: I’ve written about this in a previous post, so I won’t say a lot here. It is just so important for students to have authentic reading experience—not forced, shallow responses, made up logs, or artificial conversation. If I want my students to be lifelong readers, then I have to help them establish habits of a reader.

Bonus Read: If you read my last post, you know I am a huge Kylene Beers fan. Her blog post about Rigor and Talk Checklist for Nonfiction text is very timely. In this post she responds to a teacher’s question:

“How do you know if they are talking at a surface level or really digging deeper?”

She even includes a checklist that will be in her and Probst’s new Reading Nonfiction Notice and Note book that is coming soon.

Choice in reading–how, exactly?

2015-09-04 07.20.16There has been much written about student choice in reading–powerful, challenging calls to action from educational greats such as Penny Kittle and Donalyn Miller among many others. I highly recommend that you take a moment to watch Kittle’s video, Why Students Don’t Read What is Assigned in Class?, and read Miller’s blog post, Let My People Read, if you haven’t already.  Kelly Gallagher writes an important piece on combining choice, limited choice and no choice in Moving Beyond the 4X4 Classroom.

I’m not going to try to say what others have already said, and much better than I ever could. Instead I am going to try to show why I believe in it for my sophomore 2015-09-04 07.07.38students and how choice in reading looks like in my classroom.

One year, a group of former students came back to visit me.  During our reminiscing, they began to joke about how they didn’t finish reading the books we studied when they were in my class.  I knew something had to change. I didn’t want students to come back joking about what they didn’t read.  I wanted students to come back and talk to me how much they were still reading.  So I began to explore the idea of choice.

I believe in giving choice, because I know how powerful it has been in my classroom with my students. This year I have focused on giving students choice in reading and allowing them to enjoy it by not assigning a certain number of pages to be read, lengthy responses, or mandatory written reading logs.

Just in case you were wondering, my students are doing this reading as well as a lot of reading in class.  To date we have read and studied in class 1 children’s book, 3 articles, 10 complete short memoirs,  10 excerpts from books, 3 complete short stories, 3 poems, and 2 short videos.

Some of the things I have done so far to foster this in my classroom so far this year:

  • Students were exposed to numerous books on the second day of school.
  • Students have been given time to read in class, at least 3-4 times a week.
  • Students set their own goals on Goodreads.
  • Students log their pages on Goodreads, but they have not been assigned a specific number of pages to complete.
  • Students are given the freedom to abandon books.
  • We have Book Talk Tuesdays. Often our media specialist and assistant join us.  I pin the books promoted to our Pinterest page so students can go back and look (and I can keep up with the titles).
  • Students are surrounded by books in my classroom and have easy access to them. They also have time to go to the media center.
  • I post what I’m reading in the classroom, as well as on Goodreads. Students can always see what I’m reading and how much I’m reading.

I asked my students to complete an anonymous survey (via SurveyMonkey) to gauge how the students felt about their reading this year. (Side note: I foster a safe environme2015-09-03 22.44.33nt where I value what students think and real feedback—with each other and with me. I’m not saying they always tell the truth, but they know I value truthful feedback.) Out of my 151 students, 145 completed the survey.

  • 63% believe they have read more this year than last year.
  • 61% have read 1 or more books since the beginning of school, August 3. Of that 61%, 24% have read 3 or more books since school began.
  • 82% prefer to choose their own books; 3% prefer to have a novel assigned; and 15% said they had no preference.
  • 53% almost never completed an entire novel when assigned; 7% said they never read anything assigned outside of class.
  • 86% said choosing their own books encouraged them to read more; 62% said using Goodreads encouraged them to read more.

Some of the student comments (in their own words):

  • I don’t like doing homework assigned with reading because it makes me feel as though reading is something forced rather than something fun.
  • I don’t feel forced. I can read at my own slow pace and enjoy my book without feeling like I have to cram pages in just for a grade.
  • The book goals give added purpose for reading.
  • Please don’t choose my books for me.

  • I just wanted to make a point that Goodreads has been the most motivational thing I’ve ever used to log reading and find new books.
  • When we got to read the blurb/skim through the many different books in the library, it gave me lots of options and helped a lot.
  • Having class time to read to get me going in my book [motivates me to read]

While I believe passionately in giving students choice, I also know the challenges. I asked some colleagues (thank you Laura, Elizabeth, and Suzy!) to help me brainstorm some of the questions and concerns teachers may have when beginning to give students choice in the classroom. Below is how I navigated (and am still navigating) these on my journey.

Where do I get enough books?

I used a lot of resources. Garage sales and local used bookstores have been a great way to collect titles for my classroom library. I am particularly partial to the Goodwill Bookstore in our area that also gives an extra discount to teachers once a week. I connected with our school media center. They help me throughout the year by having titles available, doing book talks, and making the media center an extension of our space. It does help that my classroom is super close to the media center.

A colleague and I also did a school wide book drive. We asked different organizations, clubs, and sports to donate prizes. We received everything from t-shirts to tickets to games. Then we promoted the book drive through the English department and had letters to parents for Open House and community media outlets (see sample letter here). Students received a ticket for the prize drawings for each book they donated. We received tons of books this way.

How do I help students find the right book for the right student?

I don’t know if I can find right book for every student, especially early on in the year when you don’t know your students as well. I want the students to learn how to find the right books for themselves. I give them lots of opportunities to find books 2015-08-04 09.57.46through speed dating, book talks (and not just from me), and chances to peruse my classroom library, the media center, and Goodreads.

But what probably helps them the most is giving students the freedom to abandon books. Students didn’t feel pressured to pick the one book that they will like enough to finish it. They can try out a book, see if they like it, and then decide on whether or not they want to finish. For students to who don’t normally read to find a book they want or for readers to try new genre, they have to feel safe that they can try it and walk away if they don’t like it. All I ask is that they read 10 pages before deciding. Most of the time it only takes 1-3 tries before we find a book a student likes. One particular student from last year, it took 10 tries. But he finally found a book he liked.

Will students actually read outside of class?

Yes, most of them will actually read outside of class, but that doesn’t excuse us from not giving them time in class to read. If we think it is important, if we value it, we will make time for it in class. By the time students reach high school, an alarming amount of them, who used to like reading, don’t do it any more, or rarely read outside of class. Sometimes they just need the time to remember the joy of reading2015-08-04 11.12.34 and get hooked again. There are those who don’t like to read, even some who hate it. Requiring them to read, even a book of their choice, is not going to make them magically like reading. Chances are they don’t even know how to choose a book they like.

Just like I would do with any skill I was teaching, I am going to give my students lots of tools (speed dating, Goodreads, book talks, freedom to abandon, etc) to help find books and time to practice their skill (reading in class). I’m also going to talk to them about their books. I have reading conferences as often as I can with them.

What do I require of them?

There are a lot of different thoughts about this, and I’ve tried a lot of different ways. This year I had them set their own reading goals for the number of books they wanted to try to read this year. I asked them to update Goodreads once a week, but there were no requirements on many pages. Most of them update during class after we have read. I do ask that students read 10 pages before they decide to abandon a book. This is the least amount of requirements I have ever had, and it has been the most successful year.

When I required written logs and a certain number of pages each week, it felt more like forced choice reading—which wasn’t fun. Students often made up the logs right before they were due. I don’t know about you, but I hate assigning, reading, and grading work that isn’t real, probably as much as students resent it.   So I require that students always have a book in class for reading time. I require that they read during reading time. I require that they update Goodreads once a week. I require that they talk to me about the book. There are times I will ask the students to share in class conversation or in writing how a certain skill we are studying is being used in their books.

How do I hold them accountable for something I haven’t read?

Talk to them. You don’t have to have read the novel to talk about it. If you are a reader, you will know enough about books, characters, plots, themes, etc to ask questions about books you haven’t read. Ask them questions about their books—the characters, the plot, the title, themes. Have them show you parts in the text that are significant and meaningful. I find that when students know they are going to talk about their book, they read. Million Words Campaign has great resources conferring with students about independent reading and questions to ask (Making the Most of Independent Reading Using Student Conferences).

How do I hold them accountable? Grades?

I hold them accountable through talk, Goodreads, and asking them about how skills we are learning are showing up in their books; however, holding them accountable does not always mean grades. There is an expectation of reading in my class and tie to do it. Grades are something I am constantly trying to figure out and it is still evolving.

Right now, I grade on preparedness for our conferences or when I ask them to do a quick write showing how a skill was used in the book. I will ask students to do some written reflections on their reading but not every night or week. The Reading and Writing Project has a great resource of different reading responses that allows students to react to the text in a way that works for the student and is meaningful rather than having students write to a generic prompt. I’d love to hear your thoughts or ideas on this.

What if they choose something inappropriate (or that their parents deem inappropriate), but I didn’t know it was inappropriate (or that parents would see it that way)?

I try to handle this in my syllabus. I use the parent letter Kelly Gallagher shares in Reading Reasons. It’s a well-written piece to explain to parents the goals for reading and the purpose of the classroom library. I then ask parents to sign giving permission for students to check out books from my library.

I also ask parents to sign on whether they allow students to read any book they choose or whether they want to give permission for each book. Out of my 151 students, all parents gave permission to check out books from my classroom library and only one parent wanted to give permission for individual books. Find a copy of the permission page from my syllabus here.

Bonus Read:  Two Writing Teacher’s Dana Murphy provided a treasure trove of resources in her Back to School Post on TWT.  She includes resources for topics such as conferencing, conventions, minilessons, organization, read alouds, routines and so much more.  This is one to bookmark so it is easily accessible throughout the year.