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:


Screen Shot 2017-06-18 at 4.54.30 PM.png

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.

DigiLit Sunday: Historical Fiction and Digital Writing – Notes from #TCRWP

diglit sunday
Digilit Sunday was created and is hosted by Margaret Simon @ Reflections on the Teche – join us and share your digital teaching ideas

Our historical fiction unit of study has always been one of the most looked forward to events in my sixth grade classroom.  However, I always felt that there was something missing at the end, some element that needed to be present in order to make it feel like an unqualified success.   So it was with great anticipation that I attended Maggie Beattie Roberts’ session “Blending Research and Literature:Teaching Across Historical Fiction Book Clubs, Reading Like a Writer in Clubs, and Writing Digital Historical Documents” at yesterday’s TCRWP Saturday Reunion.  I always learn something smart and inventive whenever I visit Maggie’s blog (co-authored by Kate Roberts) Indent, so I was sure I’d have the same experience at her session. I was right…and here are three “big ideas” that I walked away with:

Using digital texts to preview historical fiction work:

As Maggie put it: “Reading historical fiction is entering a land you will never exist in” , so  examining digital texts is an effective way to prepare for that kind of reading.  We watched the first few minutes of Downton Abbey, and were tasked to work with a partner to take note of the point of view of the story and the artifacts we noticed.

download (1)

I was amazed at how much historical evidence we were able to pick up through this exercise, especially as Maggie cued us with focused questions as we watched: what kinds of technology was present? what was the point of view of the camera? how do we “meet” people in the movie? how are characters introduced? This would be such an interesting and engaging way to begin our unit, especially because it would allow my kids to see that, as they read, they need to be aware of all the signposts that point to the historical time frame and context of their story.

Next, we talked about the other elements of historical fiction that readers need to be aware of and alert to at the  beginning of the story.  This kind of breakdown is essential for our kids, and having the following charted and in their reading journals for reference would be helpful:

  • what kind of place is this?
  • who is telling the story? what is the point of view and perspective?
  • who is represented?
  • are there signs of trouble and change?
  • what is the main characters’ response to trouble?
  • who has power?
  • are there signs of resistance?

Forming “text circles” and shared texts to model thinking/discussing:

A shared text reading of Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say allowed us to practice “text circles” – small discussion groups of four with each member tasked with a specific noticing:

  1. study the character traits – what are they like?
  2. how characters have/fight more than one problem or pressure
  3. how does the problem of the historical world match the characters’ problems
  4. reading ahead – what problems will the character face?

Maggie suggested some alternate ways to play with text circles:

  • each group could get envelopes with each task written on strips of paper – their “mission” for the next meeting.  I love this idea of changing things up for each of the four times we meet  for historical fiction book clubs.
  • doing a digital version of this on class book blogs, so kids could share their thoughts as they were reading, before their class meetings.  I think this would lead to richer conversations all around, since my kids will have had a chance to pre-think, and allow ideas to percolate.

Creating historical documentaries as an culminating project:

This was so exciting to learn about! So often, my kids want to know more about a topic that cropped up in their historical fiction books (yellow fever, after reading Fever 1793, for example).  Researching, writing the script for, and then “channeling their inner Ken Burns” to produce a short video about the topic would be the perfect culminating project.  Viewing the student example through a writing workshop lens, we could easily see all the elements of  informational writing beautifully executed:

  • engaging introduction
  • problem/solution
  • cause and effect
  • interesting characters/people to anchor the narration
  • varying types of evidence presented
  • usage of domain specific words
  • quotes from experts
  • a layered story to catch and hold the reader’s attention

Our historical fiction unit is weeks away…too bad, I feel ready to get going with it now, thanks to Maggie’s workshop!







Reflections: The gift of the Boothbay Literacy Retreat

I arrived at a most beautiful place…

boothbay     photo 3 (1)

To learn from those I so admire…

boothbay peepsdonalynnlester laminack

…and I wondered : what will it be like? what will I learn? what can I contribute? how will it shape my new thinking? clarify my  doubts? how will it help me be the teacher I so want to be?

I came away from Maine with a teaching practices notebook filled with new ideas and new understandings.  It will take me the rest of the summer to parse through my notes and figure out how these ideas and realizations will find their way into my classroom.  But I already know that I came away from Boothbay nourished and changed as teacher.

From Linda Rief I learned to give myself the permission to really write – to practice what I teach.  No more does my writer’s notebook sit idly by as I write my blog posts, book reviews, and work-related-this-and-that , these days   my notebook is out and about, written in daily, and as much a part of my every day life as reading and breathing.

From Kylene Beers and Robert Probst I learned  to listen to the voices of our children – Kylene and Bob pay attention to how our children think, and their research and writing paves the way for us to learn how how to make reading an authentic, relevant experience for our kids.  Notice & Note, and Kylene’s earlier books When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do and (with Linda Rief and Robert Probst) Adolescent Literacy: Turning Promise into Practice  have been my go to texts for shaping an effective and meaningful  reading workshop.  Notice & Note , in particular, led to so many reading breakthroughs in my classroom last year.  So, I was thrilled to have the chance to learn from them for three whole days.

Some of my jottings:

*We need to think about the assumptions we make about our students and what we think they are capable of.  The skills that we want to develop in our highest level students – making logical inferences from the text, citing evidence from the text to support our thinking, being alert to the author’s purpose and bias – should be skills we seek to develop in all our students. We need to move beyond low level skills such as identifying the main idea and going on a hunt for context clues.

*We live in a world that depends on synthesis as literacy, where literacy is really defined as reading with meaning and writing with intent.  Literacy confers both power and privilege – those who are literate hold power, with that power comes both privilege and a responsibility to share what we know with others.

*”Rigor without relevance is really hard” – we build relevance (whether it’s a short text or a long one) so that kids get invested in the topic, and we build relevance by getting kids to ask questions.  We practiced two strategies to help us build relevance and investment , the first being “Dialogue booklets” that Bob had created (these are available for viewing on SlideShare here) to:

  • enable teachers to withdraw from the center of the conversation
  • gradually transfer responsibility to students
  • to support talk
  • to respect every reader’s unique response to the text

and we also re-visited and re-examined the  old KWL chart – with which I, for one, have had limited success over the years.  Kylene and Bob began with the premise that “we’ve drawn the lines the wrong way “- we need to find a way to get kids to effectively attach new knowledge with existing knowledge – that, after all, is the definition of comprehension .  We need to “reverse who is doing the active front loading ” and to  build interest and background knowledge before reading the text itself by:

  • keying in on important vocabulary (teacher generated, tier 1 words from the text itself)
  • making predictions – using  the words in  sentences that you think might appear in the text
  • modifying predictions – after reading the text, review the sentence you wrote. If the way you used it fits with the text, simply write, “True.” If not, revise your possible sentence to fit the text.

Kylene made this point in working with nonfiction – kids are often limited by their interest, and teachers get limited by the text.  Working with the above exercise allows much more active participation on the part of students – and I am really excited about trying this out with my kids in the Fall.

*In order to read closely you have to go beyond a reading that is confined within the “four corners of the text”. Bob gave us a wonderful overview of Louise Rosenblatt’s work, particularly her theory of transactional reading.  “The writer writes the text,” he reminded us, “but the reader makes the text”  through his or her experience – it is a “negotiated understanding.”  I found this discussion such a relief after the Common Core related focus on close reading of just the text and somehow staying only within the four corners of the text.  How is that even possible??!!

From Penny Kittle I learned the great benefits of play with purpose in our reading – writing workshops.  Penny’s kids have done amazing things through creating digital texts, and she shared samples of these .  Like Linda Rief’s early morning writing workshop, we were launched into creating our own digital pieces in the spirit of do-it-before-you-teach-it. “You’ve got something to say to the world that no one else can say, ” Penny encouraged us, even as we looked around the room  in panic, thinking to ourselves: “If she thinks we can create a book trailer, documentary, rant in one day, she’s nuts!”   But, with guidance and specific suggestions about storyboarding and craft moves, my erstwhile partner Diana Marc-Aurele and I were able to produce a respectable book trailer for “Zane and the Hurricane” – a book both os us loved.  

Two things that Penny said resonated with me deeply:

“You want kids to be engaged? They need to have mastery, autonomy, and purpose.”

“Don’t let someone hand you a unit of study and say this is what to teach–you need to engage your active mind.”

My only Boothbay regret is that I had to leave on the third day and miss out on the session with Penny and Linda Rief. 😦

We were lucky to have inspirational keynotes by Donalyn Miller, Lester Laminack and Chris Crutcher, too.  Lester’s talk was alternatively hilarious and deeply moving.  It’s central message, to me, was to infuse our kids with a passion for reading by inviting them into the books we read aloud. Lester taught us the true meaning behind the Katharine Paterson quote he shared with us:”Every time we ask a child to read to us, it’s a test. Every time we tell a child, ‘Let me read to you,’ it’s a gift.”  Donalyn’s  gift for inspiring students to read  has done so much to inspire us to do the same.  She encouraged us to work towards developing independence  and empowerment in our students reading choices – the need for each student to own a personal reading canon, just as we do.  There is ” no need for stickers and prizes, when reading is its own reward.” So true.  And Chris Crutcher, well, I was so moved by his words about how teachers can reach the most troubled among our kids through the power of stories shared and writing , that I took no notes at all. I just sat and listened and felt enriched and humbled.

At the end of my last session at Boothbay, all of us first stood to give Kylene and Bob a standing ovation.  Penny Kittle (I think) took this photograph which made its way to my Twitter feed (I am in the foreground, in the purple and green sweater) :

standing o for boothbay

I’m glad that Penny did, for I was “in the moment,” savoring every last moment of an absolutely amazing experience.  And already plotting a return next year.

Thoughts about mentoring : taking a peek at Meenoo Rami’s new book

I think about mentoring a lot, especially since I have had the privilege of mentoring new teachers for the past three years.  I worry about these new teachers, so much has changed in education since I began teaching…and most of this change is not good change.  I worry about how these new changes will affect their desire to stay in education, to keep going in those early years when the days are especially long and the rewards seem few and far between.  I worry that, given all the stresses and strains,  they will tune out, give up, leave.

And, as a mentor, I worry about the quality of my mentoring. Do I listen enough? Do I read between the lines to assess what is really going on? Do I make myself available enough? Do I offer enough praise to offset the self doubts that always creep in in those early years, when no amount of preparation seems adequate?  Do I encourage enough?  Do I suggest, not criticize? And, most importantly, do I make a difference?

Yesterday, I came across this Tweet from Meenoo Rami, an English teacher at Philadelphia’s Science Leadership Academy and a (new!) Heinemann author of the forthcoming book:


Meenoo’s tweet read like this:

Meenoo Rami ‏@meenoorami 
You can now download a chapter of Thrive. Pls share your thoughts via #edthrive  Thanks.

So, I checked out the (free!!! ) download and was happy to learn that included were excerpts of the first chapter which focuses on: “finding mentors and ways that you can maintain these relationships in your life.”  I loved the idea that Meenoo explored of being intentional about mentorship – about really thinking about the process as something  that can enhance one’s teaching lives, as opposed to something that is done to simply check off a box on the district’s to do list: every new teacher must have a mentor for their first year of teaching, for example.

Because, what happens in year two?!  I remember that my second year of teaching was much harder than my first –  now that I knew what a school year really looked like and felt like, now that I knew the type of planning that was really effective, now that I had a much better understanding of the range of learning needs I would need to address in all my subject areas… now I was really anxious and overwhelmed.   I didn’t have a school assigned mentor, and I really didn’t know how to reach out and find a mentor, either.  And so, at a very formative time and vulnerable in my teaching career,  I went it alone.  And, with the exception of the virtual PD I’ve been lucky enough to develop over time, that is still the case.

How much better it would have been to  follow the path that Meenoo Rami describes – an intentional culling together of  “models and guides for particular parts of my professional and personal life.”  And how much better to think of mentoring as a many leveled, many dimensional enterprise, one that does not end at the end of one’s first year of teaching but continues and grows as one develops as an educator.

I think I am going to pass this excerpt along to my mentee, and gift her the book when it’s published in its entirety.   It’s never too soon for her to start thinking outside the box  (our one mentor in the first year of teaching only  box) – and perhaps if not too late for me, either.

P.S.: Here’s what Meenoo’s book covers:

Ch. 1:  Turn to Mentors
Ch. 2:  Join and Build Networks
Ch. 3:  Keep Your Work Intellectually Challenging
Ch. 4:  Listen to Yourself
Ch. 5:  Empower Your Students