NCTE Summer Book Club: Part Three

NCTE Reads

For the NCTE summer book club, we are reading Jennifer Buehler’s Teaching Reading With YA Literature: Complex Texts, Complex Lives.  This week we read chapters 5 and 6, and here are some ideas I tagged:

The power and effectiveness of the books and our teaching hinges on the tasks we design for students…far too often our classroom tasks engage students in either personal work (such as journal entries focused on connections between their lives and the text) or analytical work (such as five paragraph essays). Rarely do we invite students to blend these different dimensions of reading into one.  Our use of these tasks keeps the pedagogical binary in place, and yet year after year we continue to rely on them.  (pg. 91)

This teacher is guilty as charged.  This “pedagogical binary” that Jennifer Buehler writes about is an area I have struggled with especially when it comes to classroom tasks. We grow only if we are honest about our practices, and these two task and assessment oriented chapters had particular resonance and immediacy for me.  I have take the path between personal work and analytical work myself, alternating between the one and the other in the hopes that my kids would learn and grow as readers, doing the personal and the analytical in separate ways.  These words (and chapters) will be ones I will return to again and again this summer as I craft the way forward.

YA pedagogy calls teachers to create tasks that link these modes of reading to parallel kinds of relevance: personal relevance, in terms of students’ interests and needs as individuals; academic relevance, in terms of students’ current and future success in school; and social relevance, in terms of students’ relationships with others and larger real- world contexts.  By emphasizing relevance, we encourage students to cultivate the habit of applying literary concepts and literary ways of thinking to books they choose for themselves so that they’ll read those books with increasing skill and insight…The result of this approach is that students develop greater agency and autonomy as readers.  (pg. 109)

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

The tasks Buehler writes about demonstrate how these three parallel relevances can be interconnected so that students can exert choice and personalization when they weigh their assignment options.   This personal, social and academic triad of relevancies gets to the very heart of what makes  YA literature such a powerful way to both reach our kids as well as teach our kids.  My sixth graders are at the very beginning of that time in life when kids are ready to explore books as the key to understanding social and personal precepts; they are also developmentally ready to think about those abstract ideas that define academic thinking.  I loved reading about each task, and seeing how they played out in the real world setting of the upper middle school and high school teachers who shared their experiences with Buehler.  I can’t wait to begin working on adapting these tasks for next year!

And yet it is this personal dimension of reading that our assessment is least likely to explore, or even consider.  It’s the great irony of teaching.  We want students to love books as we do…And yet if students are able to find and make their own personal connections, we don’t give them much room to show it.  (pg. 112) 

Assessment ends up being one more place where we reinforce the binary paradigm and limit our opportunities for authentic teaching. (pg 113)

It was difficult to read these words, because my assessment practices have not always (and with consistency) aligned with this pedagogical vision.    Agency and autonomy in reading are absolutely linked to the purpose and meaning making our kids bring to the task, but agency and autonomy in a classroom are dependent upon us, their teachers.  We have to change our thinking not only about the tasks we assign, but also about the way we encourage and honor independence in the way we assess those tasks.    There was much food for thought and practical advice in this chapter.

Here’s our discussion assignment:

 

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As I’ve said above, I tend to practice within the paradigm of the pedagogical binary Buehler advocates against: some of my tasks are personal and allow choice and creativity, but some of my tasks are purely academic (the five paragraph essay analyzing theme, for example.  My personal preference, which is also my students’ preference is for the former, but I also know that my seventh grade colleagues will be counting upon me to teach my kids how to write that five paragraph essay in a very particular way;  I feel that it’s therefore my responsibility to teach my students how to deliver what they will be called upon to deliver: the standard five paragraph, with thesis statement and evidence written in conformity with seventh grade expectations.

I LOVE the ideas in chapter five, and know that my summer work will focus on understanding and practicing these tasks for myself so that I can figure out what they will look like in my sixth grade classroom.

Slice of Life Tuesday: Of gardening and teaching

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Last weekend, my husband and I spent hours and hours choosing sites, preparing the ground, and planting everything from rhubarb to blue berry bushes.  Each young plant came with a few general instructions about how to go about this endeavor, and a note of caution: these plants were young, it would be several years before we could expect any blossoms or fruits.

We knew this. We were planting for the future, for our children and their children, and for who ever else may own our farm years and years from now.  Still, we took care to research what was needed for each variety of plant, to find the spot that would give them the best chance to thrive, and to prepare the soil with what each needed.  And, in the weeks and months and years ahead, we will tend to them.

Teacher nerd that I am, I (of course!) was making many connections between gardening and teaching.  We plant for the future, and we teach for the future.  We plant hoping that, with the right kind of nurturance, things will take root, grow bit by bit, blossom here and there, and eventually thrive and bloom with consistency, year after year.  We teach, day after day, with that same faith and hope.

The end of each gardening day, of collecting assorted gardening tools and storing away the bone meal, peat moss, and the like,  felt very much like the end of my teaching day -collecting  notebooks, storing away our pencils and pens, and restoring order to our classroom library.

In these last few weeks of the school year, I want to hold on to each moment of our classroom lives.  I see so much growth already, and yet I know that I will not be there to witness the flourishing.  Soon, and ever after, my kids will be tended to by other teaching hands.   They are ready to go…we have done good work this year, and they are prepared for the journey ahead…

…but I have begun missing them already.

#Celebratelu: Celebrating projects!

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

We are closing in on Memorial Day weekend, a big one for us as we “get back” two unused snow days in addition to the usual three day weekend. When we return, it will be June, and my kiddos will be living and breathing summer dreams of swimming, lazing about, and freedom from school…even though we will STIL have three more weeks of school.

Last week, I turned our classroom over to my sixth graders.   They are working on their multi genre writing projects – choosing a topic and writing about it in four of the twelve different genres we have learned to write, starting book partnerships to dig deep and read through two books in the time we have left, and diving into various history projects that will put what they are learning in social studies to the test.

From Monday through Thursday, I stepped back and watched as my kiddos took my simple instructions: create a game of courage and chance that plots out the dangers and sacrifices made along the Underground Railroad this week, honor the brave men and women who were part of this civil rights movement.

Using their class notes and a few additional research tools, my students got to work (some right away, some eventually, and some reluctantly).  It took all of the following to get to our goal – game day:

patience and perseverance: even the best initial ideas need tweaking and refining, nothing ever is as easy as you first think it’s going to be.

communication: no one is allowed to be a show boat or a slacker, but everyone needs to participate and be heard.  Sometimes, may want to scream at your team mates, but that’s the best way to ensure that no one listens to you.  

trade offs: “you can’t always get what you want” is a fact of life not just words to sing, you’ve got to learn to give a little to get a little (that might be a song, too!)…and that’s hard to do.

staying focused on the purpose: it’s all too easy for a group project to run off the tracks if you lose sight of the purpose of the project in the first place.  You may need to take turns reining each other in, but that’s just part of group work.

sometimes the people you really wanted to work with are just the people you’d best NOT work with: this was a tricky lesson to learn, and one that brought no small degree of frustration and tears.  

Game day was great fun.  We took turns rotating around the classroom to play each game, and then having a “say back” at the end.  And, even in this, there was something to learn:

Your ideas may be clear to you but not to others – directions are hard to write. It was interesting to hear how directions could be revised and refined, there is a reason why I stress working towards clarity in our writing workshop!

So, this weekend I celebrate projects: they are messy, noisy, and often frustrating – but we learn so much about ourselves and others when we work together to create something new. Project based learning is so worth the effort (and the occasional headache!).

#Celebratelu: Cultivating community

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres @ ruth ayres writes  …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.

Illness got in the way of my plans to be a part of this #G2Great Twitter chat last Thursday night, which I had been so looking forward to:

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We had just endured through six days of PARCC testing.  For six days, my sixth graders trooped down to our cavernous all purpose room (along with every other sixth grader in our middle school), found their testing ticket among the rows of neatly set up laptops, followed instructions to log on and open their testing units, and proceeded to test for 110 minutes each day.

Each day of testing left them more irritable and moody than the day before; each day became a struggle to get them back into our classroom mode of reading, writing, thinking and talking together.

By the sixth day, Wednesday, they were done with sitting still, testing…and school. Thankfully, our last testing day coincided with beautiful Spring weather, and so we marched out of testing and made a bee line for the soccer fields: there was nothing to do but run screaming around the sun dappled field, and raise some sixth grade mayhem on a brilliant Spring afternoon.

The next day, Thursday, was tough going.  There was a general sense of “testing is over, and we are all just DONE with school”.   My kids were still restless, grumpy, hard to get focused, and hard to please.  I set aside my plan book.  We read aloud, we wrote, we talked a lot.  Day dreaming and doodling was permitted.  By the end of the day, I felt the strain of the past six days begin to ease.  We were not quite back in the groove again, but we were getting there.

On Friday, I stayed home to take my husband to the doctor’s office.  I wondered about those  sixth graders back in Room 202, how were they managing?  The plans I’d left for the substitute were made with my kids the day before: we had decided what we needed to work on – which projects to complete, how to write our Friday reading responses, the movie we’d be watching about the Underground Rail Road and why.   Every time I glanced at the clock, I tried to imagine what was transpiring in our classroom, how were my kids getting on?

With this in mind, I turned to the Good to Great Storyify that Mary Howard had culled from the chat the night before.  It was a rich and deep chat, as all Good to Great chats tend to be, but this Tweet stuck with me:

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This idea of cultivating community is such essential yet difficult work; essential because kids can’t learn unless they feel heard and valued, but difficult because this work is accomplished only through so many incremental, every day steps, that it often seems invisible.  Every day of working together is woven from so many interactions: some explicit, and some quiet and implicit – a smile here, a wink there, a thumbs up when needed, and a frown when it matters.  There is no book to teach how to cultivate community, but you know when it’s there…you can feel it in your bones.

Cornelius’ words made me think about how vital this work is, and I loved his use of the verb “cultivate”, which Merriam Webster defines as: “to foster the growth of, to improve by labor, care, or study”.  Cultivation takes time, it is intentional often quiet work.  We cannot will a classroom community, we have to do the painstaking work of cultivating it. Sometimes the community feels as though it’s fraying around the edges (after six days of testing, for example), and sometimes it hums along without the outward appearance of any work.  Sometimes we are present to enjoy the community we’ve come together to cultivate, and at other times we have to hope that it continues even though we ourselves, as the teacher facilitator) are not present (as I was not, on Friday).  Sometimes we have to labor at it, even belabor the very notion of it, but it’s always worthwhile work, this work of cultivating community.

I celebrate that this weekend…and also the end of testing!

 

 

Slice of Life Tuesday: Testing, testing, testing…

Slice of Life Tuesday is hosted by Two Writing Teachers

Spring Break is over and testing season is here – the PARCC test, and the “too cool for school” test.   The PARCC test will be over and done with in a week…the other test, well, that will take longer than we have time for this school year.

Every year,my sixth graders return from their Spring Break on the precipice of adolescence.   A switch is flipped by some mysterious, known-only-to-sixth-graders force, and they return from break seventh graders in spirit and behavior.  Suddenly (or so it seems), there is a need to present a cool facade, a demeanor of disinterest, a sort of “I’m kinda done with this little place-ness”.  Everyone has a crush on someone else, and middle school drama begins to show up at inopportune times…in the middle of book club, for instance.

Sly smiles, and throwing serious shade  become common place; a need to watch oneself becomes moment by moment work, for one never knows who is watching, or what they might say.

Of course, all of the above does daily battle with the pre-Spring Break self who fights mightily, and with success, at every turn.   That sophisticated sixth grader can (ion the blink of an eye) morph back into the kid who laughs at fart jokes, needs to build a “reading fort” behind the easel, and wants to spend choice time writing about magic wands.

And, of course, there is the unrelenting need to test boundaries, rules, limits, patience…and sometimes even kindness.  They are watchful when testing, paying close attention to how far they can push before there is push back, to whether the same rules apply in the same way they did when the year first began.

They are comfortable with each other and me, sometimes too comfortable.  Throughout the day there is the constant push and pull of maintaining that exact level of comfort that allows for freedom of expression, creativity, and thinking, and yet prevents all of that good stuff from careening off into mayhem (which they both yearn for and and are terrified of).

Testing, testing, testing….

#SOLC17: Maker Day – a new take on learning

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community

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Today was Maker Day in our middle school.  A dedicated and talented group of our faculty acquired a range of materials for our students for our students to explore, learn, and make all kinds of “stuff” with: creating circuits, building race courses, programming animation, and learning how 3D printers work – there was chance to work with all of this and more.

My own learning and teaching world is steeped in reading and writing workshop, and even though I’ve read and heard a lot about MakerSpaces and the remarkable learning that goes on when kids get their hands on all kinds of cool tools, I’d never seen one in action.  More importantly, I’d never seen own  my students working in such a space – and doing so was quite a revelation.

I learned that some of the greatest risk avoiders in my classroom, the ones who want to know exactly how many lines to every paragraph and how many paragraphs there needed to be in whatever it was that we were writing, were the biggest risk takers in this new setting.  They approached each new maker space with enthusiasm and often did not bother to read the directions, preferring to dive right in and figure their way through. I was surprised to see that these students, the ones who want very explicit directions (ones that are repeated many times) in my classes, felt such a degree of freedom in this space.

I learned that students who were the first to say “I’m done!” in reading and writing workshop, were often the ones who just kept going in our maker spaces.  They kept reaching for new pieces to try out, new combinations to manipulate together, and new limits to test.

And I paid close attention to the vocabulary of this new learning space:

“I wonder what would happen if…?”

“How about if I tried it this way instead of what the diagram says to do?”

“What if I flipped the whole circuit around?”

“Well, it didn’t work that way so I’m going to try this way.”

“I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m gonna  keep trying new combinations.”

“This started out being one thing, but I thought ‘why stop there?’ and kept adding stuff – and look, I made this, which is way cool!”

This is the vocabulary of curiosity, wonder, perseverance, and risk taking: the vocabulary of growth mindset.  How to bring all of that, or some of that, into my classroom? Well, that is what I have been thinking about all day…and will be thinking about for days to come.

#SOLC17:Sharing a SOL once a week really does build a writing community

The Slice of Life March Writing Challenge @ Two Writing Teachers – 31 days of  a writing community.community.jpg

My sixth graders write a slice of life once a week from September through June. These SOLs are posted by Friday with comments due by Sunday, which gives me my Saturday afternoon ritual: read and comment on all student slices, making suggestions and offering compliments as I go along.  It’s one of my favorite teacher chores, for it allows me to see our morning and afternoon classes grow as a writing community across the span of a whole year.  My kiddos spread their writing wings and try new things, they become more confident about their writing voices, they enjoy reading each others’ work and leaving encouraging comments.

Yesterday was an exceptional SOL day for me.  I loved reading through each slice of life, of course, but half way through I discovered that we’d had a class reunion in the process of sharing our SOLs.  Here’s a taste of what that felt like:

A’s post made me smile because of its connection to our Social Studies work:

It was a long 4 hour drive in the car. Hours passing by, doing nothing and the only thing to see, is trees. All I heard was my sister snoring in the back, while I was trying to read my book. After all those boring long hours in the car, we finally made it to Boston.

I had told my dad that we were learning about the USS Constitution in Social Studies, and since our hotel was like five minutes away from the USS constitution my Dad took my sister and I to go see the USS Constitution. We were really close to where the boat was, and I could already see part of it. Unfortunately, the last tour of the ship was at 3:30, but we still got to see the inside of museum and parts of the boat.

In the museum they had a station where you could engrave your name in copper, because since they are repairing the boat they are going add copper sheeting to the outside of the boat. Now once they place the copper onto the boat my name will be on the boat. The boat’s finished model is really detailed and nice. I really liked going to see the boat in person since we have learned some much about it in class and now I can said that I saw this magnificent ship with my own eyes!

A’s post had me laughing out loud with its wry sense of humor, it was also a glimpse into how kids feel about being over scheduled:

Finally! I raced out of an annoying study skills class I had to attend every Thursday. I pushed open the doors of the school and inhaled deeply. Freedom! We learn nothing in the class, which really annoys me. I only really doodle the whole time, unless it somehow magically gets interesting. I walked down the steps and sighed. Now to go from one prison to another. I now had to go to… *dun dun daaaaaa!* HEBREW SCHOOL! I sit there for two hours learning prayers which I don’t even know what they mean. I would be fine with it if I did, but if you’re going to teach me something, I have to know what it means, right? I said goodbye to my friend who also had to endure the class with me, and then, with my head down, set out for the Hebrew School. Sadly, it was only two blocks away, so I didn’t have to walk that far. The only good thing about the class I had to attend was that I got to miss 30 minutes of Hebrew School. I will take what I can get.

Each step closer brought pain to me. Then I realized I had been walking the wrong way, which I guess my mind did intentionally, because by the time I got back to my normal route, I had successfully wasted another 10 minutes. Thank you mind. I stopped when I first saw the school. I sighed deeply, and started walking as slowly as possible, taking the long route around the parking lot.

Then, all too soon, the doors were right in front of me. I looked at them, and they seemed to look back saying: “Mwah ha ha! You will never get out alive! Surrender or prepare to die!!! Mwah ha ha!” Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a tiny bit.

But, that is my tale of walking to Hebrew School. Now you feel my pain. Then, once I walked into the classroom, I remembered we were making Hamentashens! I sighed in relief. I looked at the clock, and saw we had an hour left. I could deal with that.

O’s ending had me laughing out loud again:

Squeak! Squeak! Basketball shoes on the court. I reach in to get the ball, Crack! I heard my thumb loud and clear. “It’s broken,” I thought, but then I looked at it, a little red and very painful thumb. Phew! I was relieved it wasn’t broken, but then the wave of pain came back like a tsunami hitting the shore. I walked to the bench in agonizing pain. “Is it broken?” Mr. Stewart my coach asked. “I don’t know,” I replied. I showed him my thumb. “We need to cut off your hand and get a prosthetic one,” he joked, and I laughed a little. It was getting really swollen now, and very, very painful. “Here’s some ice,” my dad said, running from the bleachers around the court. He got it from my mom, who ran to the front desk, got a bag and scooped ice out of the freezer with her bare hands. I wrapped it around my thumb. It was freezing, but it felt so good. I watched the game for the whole 4th quarter, which was so boring, but I knew I couldn’t risk hurting it again.

Later that night, my dad said I sprained my thumb. He made me soak my whole hand in freezing ice water for 5 minutes. I couldn’t feel my hand.  “Where did you get this idea?” I questioned. “The internet,” he replied.

The internet: how to get false information to almost give your kids frostbite. My thumb has been getting better and it will be fully healed soon, I hope.

E’s post was thoughtful and serious, reflective of what she is like.  E thinks about the world and her place in it, just as her sister had done when she was in my class many years ago:

Last weekend,  I saw the movie “Hidden Figures”. It’s about three real African-American women, Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, who worked at NASA during the launch of John Glenn. The women face struggles with race and gender, like when Johnson has to travel half a mile to go to the colored women’s restroom. Jackson wants to become an engineer, but in order to become one she has to take extra college courses while everyone else does not. Jackson petitions and wins her case so she can integrate the evening classes at a white-only high school. Vaughan is constantly passed over for promotions, and she nearly loses her job, when NASA gets an early computer that can do complicated math problems faster than a room full of humans. Many of these problems may seem like history, but in reality they are still issues today.

For example, the bathroom problem is extremely important right now, because a lot of transgender students can’t use the bathroom of the gender they identify as. It can be very humiliating for them. And in some countries, girls can’t go to school because there is no bathroom for them at their schools. This sounds like such an odd reason not to go to school. We take it for granted, but the truth is, having a safe place to go to the bathroom everyday can make a huge difference.

This movie also shows that women are smart and can work equally as well as men. Women are often expected to stay home and take care of the kids, and are criticized for “not being good mothers” or “not being there for their kids”. This happened in history, and is still happening today.“Hidden Figures” also made me wonder who else was skipped over throughout history. People who changed the world are sometimes are forgotten, especially if they are women or people of color. Why?

And then, this, an impromptu class reunion among the comments (Heeseong moved back to Korea in January, we have not heard from him, but he apparently still checks into our writing blog…for there he suddenly appeared!):

E:I like how you said “All of that hard work for nothing”. It made it seem really important because you put it at the end.

Lauren:I like the ending

 

Heeseong:What is going on? Did you lose passing time?

J:HEESONG!HEESONG!HEESONG!

R:Heeseong!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

R:HEESONG HEESONG!

M:Heesong!!!!!!!

O:Heesong!!!!! 😮

 

 

S:HEESONG SPOTTING, I REPEAT…….. HEESONG SPOTTING!!!!!!!!!!

R:HEESONG ROBBIE THINKS YOUR STUCK IN YOUR OLD LOCKER

A:Heesong! I miss you soooooooo much!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

S:Heesong tell us all about your new home!!!

M:Make a S.O.L Heesong!

How exciting!  I could just hear my kids’ voices shrieking over the ether space in delight as they felt some small connection with their old friend now so far away.  We write in writing workshop, true, but best of all we connect and build a community.