Monday, March 2, 2015

Opening the Door to Strangers

I love bringing authors and guest speakers into my classroom. It's selfish really, but I love learning from experts and writers. I am passionate about opening up opportunities for my high school readers and writers to ask questions of experts they might not have access to in their daily lives. Okay, I like to be able to ask questions of experts I might not ordinarily have access to outside the classroom. Today was no exception.

This morning Donna Nordmark Aviles came to speak with my tenth grade students about this history of the orphan train movement in the United States. In preparation for our visit from author Christina Baker Kline who is coming to speak about her book Orphan Train next week, Ms. Aviles shared the story of her grandfather, sent to ride the orphan train to Kansas in 1919 along with his brother.  Inspired by her grandfather's story, Ms. Aviles spent a number of years researching the history of the orphan train movement, one of the first social welfare programs introduced in the United States. Orphans from the large east coast cities, like New York City and Philadelphia where immigration populations exploded, were taken from orphanages and placed onto trains headed west where Midwestern families would either adopt the children or use them as extra labor on farms.

The opportunity to hear the real story behind the historical fiction story of Orphan Train was fascinating. Bringing in outside voices helps to build a greater sense of empathy, a greater sense of responsibility to bear witness to the lives and to injustice when and where they see it. As a teacher, I have the opportunity and responsibility to facilitate those sorts of introductions. I hold open the doors of opportunity, facilitate learning, and introduce students to possibility. I open my classroom doors to strangers in the hopes that all us become more acquainted with the voices in our community.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Comfortable with Chaos

Today's the day.

March 1st kicks off the month-long blogging challenge hosted by the Two Writing Teachers blog. I participated last year for the first time in their daily Slice of Life Writing Challenge and connected with so many fantastic teachers and writers that I just had to do it again this year. So, what is the challenge? Write about a slice of your day, a small moment from each day for the month of March. Participants are encouraged to comment on the blogs of other "slicers" and share feedback using #SOL15. Interested? There's still time to join. Just head on over to the participant post.

I'm not sure what is going on here, although I'm sure there is a story. There always is. I walk into my boys' room, and in addition to painfully stepping onto a errant Lego brick, I find this scene, one among many, set up on their Lego table. When my eldest, now in kindergarten, first started playing with Legos a few years back, he would follow the directions that came with each set. Sets were stored in their original boxes with the directions. And you could never mix sets together. No way. But somewhere in the course of the past year, that changed. Sets are intermixed, directions tossed aside, and I can hear my two boys making up stories for their creations as they build them. Astronaut knights fight evil dragons with the help of alien robots.

My boys wanted the rules and directions when they first started to build. I would watch them at the dining room table as they pieced together each creation, carefully following the step-by-step instructions. And they still do this when opening a new set, but after the set has been built to the directions the first time, it is likely the last time that we will see the set in that form again. Now it is about the story. They've figured out the basics: how to build with joints and wheels, how to make a hinged jaw or a contraption to fire missiles.  Sets are mixed together in comfortable chaos.  Knowing the rules helped them feel more at ease breaking them.

There's a lesson here.

I want my students to be comfortable in the chaos of learning that happens in our classroom. I want them to take ownership and initiative, but I can't expect this from day one, especially when so many of them have not had many opportunities to do so. Instead, teachers expect students to follow our instructions, our directions, our curriculum. And much of the time, our students are not involved in the process of creating those rules. So to expect students to think creatively, to embrace the chaos, and take initiative from the very first day of our class is not only unrealistic, but it is also unreasonable. Just like my little master builders, my students need to be shown models, introduced to mentors, and gradually handed the reins of responsibility. Students need to be able to identify what defines the box before they can think outside of it. Students need to learn the building blocks of writing before they begin to challenge what the rules of writing mean for their own rhetorical expression.

But the like my little Lego creators, I want my students to be the narrators of their own stories, to be confident in their creations, to be comfortable in the chaos that comes with creating something new and meaningful. The goal is not to have students follow my rules; the goal is to have them make their own.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Building a Community of Readers

On the first day of class, many English teachers will begin by asking students about their favorite books, a sort of innocuous ice breaker to get to know the readers sitting in the classroom. But all too often, I've had students respond to this question with:

"I dunno. I don't read." 
or worse 
"I'm not really a reader."

In the teachers' workroom, you'll sometimes hear similar statements: "I wish I had more time to read," "I don't really get a chance to read during the school year." So many teachers and students don't see themselves as readers.

One of my favorite writers on the topic of reading is Kelly Gallagher, and in an interview with Education Week a few years back, he stated:
"Schools have put all of their emphasis on academic reading and functional reading and completely abandoned the idea of trying to turn kids on to the kinds of reading we want them to do 10 and 20 and 30 years from now—and that’s recreational reading. We have forgotten that we want them to be readers, not just people who can pass a test. There are studies showing that adults who read regularly are much more involved in their communities and civic life generally, so I don’t think this is just a curriculum issue. I think it’s a cultural issue."
Reading, a real love of a good book, does not involve a multiple-choice test. The way that I read for pleasure is very different than the way that I read for class. And we are doing a lot to help our students read for class, but what are we doing to help our young readers discover the pleasure of reading? How do we build a school community that defines themselves as readers? How do you build a reading culture?

Okay, so I don't have all the answers, but I do have a few ideas.

After attending last weekend's Delaware Valley Reading Association conference, I came home inspired to find ways to encourage students to voice their interest in reading. So I quickly put together a Google form and emailed my students and all the teachers in my high school building, asking them to share their favorite books in order to build a March Madness Book Battle bracket. And in no time at all, I heard from all sorts of readers in our building. The quick response from our community, with teachers, students, and parents sharing over 250 book recommendations, got me thinking about other ways to encourage our community to see itself as readers.

Teachers are models of what successful readers do, of what readers look like. If students see us as readers, they come to understand that reading is a joy that continues throughout a lifetime. So, teachers need to share what they are reading. Students need to see their mentors reading, need to see that reading is done for purposes other than simply to take a test.

I quickly put together a little poster for teachers to share what they are currently reading, ran off copies, and will have them laminated Monday morning. Why laminate them? So that teachers can easily write on the posters with a whiteboard marker and erase it to add their next book!

Here's the little poster I created on Canva:

I'm curious to hear what others are doing to build a community of readers. What are the ideas and strategies you are using in your school?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Remixing Writing

It is one of my students' favorite daily writing prompts. Mine, too. Yesterday I came into class with a stack of newspapers in hand. Before the bell rang, I walked around the room handing out a section of the paper to each student. I got some quizzical looks. We usually begin each class writing in our writer's notebooks. Are we going to start today with reading? Nope. We're started the day by remixing the newspaper.

I shared Austin Kleon's blackout poetry with students, and you could hear a buzz move throughout the room. They didn't want to wait for me to finish explaining our writing task. They wanted to jump right in. And they did!

After they spent some time carefully considering their word choices and marking out meaning, we spent some time sharing our process. How did students begin the task of making something new from another person's words? Some began with a single word, plucking the most important word from an article, letting it form the heart of the blackout poem, and then finding the words to connect with that idea throughout the rest of the article.  Others started with a pencil, circling whatever words first intrigued them and let the meaning of the piece arise naturally from the work. Still others began with an idea in mind, and like a hunter, stalked the article for the necessary words.  And it was in this discussion on how we went about the task of making meaning that we were able to reflect on the value of having different perspectives, different approaches to creating meaning.

There is so much value in creating blackout poetry with students. Not only do students have the opportunity to step outside their own writing by working with someone else's words, but also blackout poetry begs the creator to take a different perspective on writing in carefully considering both the original writer's words as well as the process by which writers create. And it's a heck of a lot of fun, too!

Digital Connections Realized

It began with a tweet.

A student in my tenth grade English class researched running injuries for her recent #HavPassion independent inquiry project. As part of her project, the student created a blog to both share what she was learning as well as to connect with other readers and experts interested in prevented running injury. To help students connect with those experts, we used social media to share our blogs and ask experts for help. And if you are going to research running injuries, then you better try to get in touch with Christopher McDougall, author of the best-selling book Born to Run. So I shared my student’s blog with Mr. McDougall through Twitter, and what followed was a connection that brought the author to our high school this past Thursday to speak with students about his experiences with running and writing.

Mr. McDougall spoke with a group of about 100 students on February 26th about his experiences as a writer. A free-lance writer for Philadelphia’s Daily Times lead to a position as a journalist with the Associated Press, who sent him on a worldwide adventure covering the civil war in Angola and later covering the genocide in Rwanda in the early 1990s. After years spent covering Africa, Mr. McDougall went on to write about Mexico, and while there, learned about the hidden tribe of Tarahumara Indians who live in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. Fascinated by their ability to run great distances while wearing only simplistic sandals, Mr. McDougall let his questions drive his inquiry and research into how it was possible for members of this culture to run hundreds of miles without rest. And that was his take away message for our students and teachers in attendance - always ask questions.

And they did! The students and teachers in attendance spent nearly 40 minutes asking Mr. McDougall about his experiences, his advice for novice runners, and about his upcoming projects. As an added treat, my student and her parents, all avid runners, were among those in the audience. And so what began as an online connection turned into one in real life as well!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Bring on the Battle...the March Madness Book Battle

Image from
I came home from Saturday's Delaware Valley Reading Association's conference inspired. We spent the morning sharing ideas for empowering student readers by promoting voice and choice in our school classrooms and libraries.  As we discussed ideas for building reading habits and engaging all members of our learning communities in reading, the idea of a March Madness style Book Battle came up. That's when the ideas really started to flow.

You'll find all sorts of clever bulletin board ideas on Pinterest for a book battle, but I wanted to do something that wouldn't just reside inside my classroom. Instead, I wanted to invite participation from students, teachers, administrators, and parents alike. This meant, I needed to think digitally. So, I started with a basic bracket design (feel free to use the graphic below).
I'm fortunate because I have an awesome sister who works on a production team for a printing company and is able to print this out large scale for me on vinyl for free, but you easily could print this out at Staples for under $30. Why vinyl? So I can write on it easily with white board markers that wipe off, making it easy to reuse it year after year. So this big banner will hang in the hallway, but how do I involve our larger community? That's where the digital aspect comes in.

Excited, I emailed my students, their parents, and fellow teachers on Sunday, sharing a Google form with a basic description of our book tournament - 16 books pitted against one another with daily voting to narrow down our book selections to two challengers by the close of March. I asked our community to recommend the books for the initial 16 challengers. What are your most loved books? Within 24 hours, 56 people had responded with over 250 book choices! So in the coming week, whichever books are most recommended will become the 16 in the initial bracket.

Then over the course of March, I'll be sharing our book battles through our daily announcements and classroom Twitter account, asking all community members to cast their vote using Celly.  At the moment, I'm reaching out to local bookstores, publishers, and authors to help us by sponsoring reading prizes for community members who participate in the voting. I would love to be able to giveaway signed copies of books and bookstore gift certificates to daily participants. The idea is to reward readers with reading prizes, and throughout the month of March sharing the joy of reading! 

What are you doing to spread the joy of reading in your community? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Here it is! The final 16 books as recommended by teachers, students, and parents:

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Motivating Readers

What a fantastic morning! I got up early to share my Saturday morning with teachers, librarians, reading specialists, and educators from around the Delaware Valley for the Delaware Valley Reading Association's conference on Motivating Readers In and Out of the Classroom. I was invited to share how I connect my student readers using 2.0 technologies. And although we didn't plan it, the other presenters, Lauren Strohecker, BJ Neary, and Janine Sacks, and I all ended up reinforcing the same thing - students need to be heard! We need to give space in our classrooms for student voice and choice.
In preparation for my presentation this morning, I asked my high school readers what got them into reading, what motivated them to read, their responses came faltering at first. But when I asked them what didn’t work to motivate their reading, their responses came faster than I could record. Repeatedly students mentioned not having a say in what they read, how they read, or how their knowledge was assessed. Students mentioned being assigned books, assigned chapters to read in those books, and then being assigned how many comments they needed make during a class discussion of the book. Students wanted to read, but many said that reading in school killed reading. “Having to make six comments during a class discussion put the focus on the grading and not on the book,” Steph offered. Her comment opened up a conversation about how reading is assessed. “Why do teachers give quizzes to check if we’ve read? Does it really matter if we remember that the protagonist was wearing a blue shirt on Tuesday? I’d rather talk about the book,” stated Vivi. “A teacher told me that I shouldn’t read ahead, but I really liked the book,” another offered. "So what does work?" I asked. “I love when teachers give us a chance to talk about the books, and not just answer questions that the teacher came up with,” Nina suggested. “Yea, I learn so much more by listening to how others interpreted particular scenes,” Kelly added. “I don’t learn a whole lot from worksheets, but they sure seem to count for all of my reading grades,” Anthony shared.

As writer and teacher Peter Elbow points out, “...when students struggle for excellence only for the sake of a grade, what we see is not motivation but the atrophy of motivation: the gradual decline of the ability to work or think or wonder under one’s own steam” (“Grading Student Writing: Making It Simpler, Fairer, Clearer” 129).

And this was echoed by my students when I asked them about their experiences reading in the classroom. So what can we do to encourage voice and choice in the reading classroom? Give students opportunities to have their voices and choices validated!

You can follow along with our online conversations from this morning by clicking through our Twitter conversation below.

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