Friday, October 12, 2018

Cultivating a Culture of Reading: Encouraging Reading

As we work to cultivate a culture of reading, sometimes it's not enough to just model reading and share your reading...sometimes students need a little more active encouragement to read. A little extra nudge, or a little straight up teaching on why reading is important. Maybe we assume too much--they've always had books held in front of them, but not been told in so many words what, exactly, all the benefits of reading are, or helped to experience those benefits.
My school is encouraging reading in middle and high school by designating 35 minutes every Thursday afternoon as “Drop Everything And Read” (DEAR) time in homerooms. But few values are deeply embedded by proclamation, so in my role as curriculum coordinator, I have become chief modeler, sharer, and encourager. I've provided every 6th-12th grade English teacher, as well as anyone else who wants it, a poster of the excellent infographic “Why Read: 10 Reasons” from Gallagher’s web site. Once a month in staff meetings I am letting teachers experience a reading activity or mini-lesson. It helps us realize the joys of reading, share them as a professional community, and offers homeroom teachers ideas to implement in DEAR if they want. In August, we did our own book pass or “book speed dating” activity. Several teachers walked out with books to read, and several used the activity in DEAR time. 

In September, we talked about first lines. I modified one of Kelly Gallagher’s mini-lessons on the first reason, “reading is rewarding,” from his book Reading Reasons. I modeled a couple of my favorite first sentences from—one from a classic novel and one from a contemporary. Then I gave every teacher a book with a relatively interesting first sentence, and we conducted an “amazing first line” tournament bracket—pairs facing off to determine which of their books had the more interesting first line, then pairs of pairs, etc., until we had 3 winners. 

I loved circulating among the discussions and hearing things like “This one is more poetic, but this one makes me want to keep reading more,” because the point was less to choose the best lines than to think about what makes a good first line. I made a Google Doc of the 2 I shared and the 3 the group ended up with, and shared it with the group, inviting people to add their own favorites if they wanted. It was, indeed, rewarding to see how many people had first lines of their own they were invested enough to contribute. Here’s the list we came up with: 
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen)
  • Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. (Little Bee, Chris Cleave)
  • Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. (Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston)
  • There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis)
  • If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. (The Bad Beginning, Lemony Snicket)
  • I always get the shakes before a drop. (Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein)
  • The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. (The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G.K. Chesterton) 
  • No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. (A Grief Observed, C.S Lewis)
  • Call me Ishmael. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)
  • I saw Byzantium in a dream, and I knew that I would die there. (Byzantium, Stephen Lawhead)
  • Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small, unregarded yellow sun. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams)
  • All beings begin their lives with hopes and aspirations. (Thrawn, Timothy Zhan)
  • Jasnah Kholin pretended to enjoy the party, giving no indication that she intended to have one of the guests killed. (Words of Radiance, Brandon Sanderson)
  • Lizzie Hearts, the Princess of Hearts, daughter of the Queen of Hearts, heir to the throne of Wonderland’s Card Castle, captain of the Ever After High Croquet Team, and hedgehog enthusiast, was holding a knife. (Ever After High: A Wonderlandiful World, Shannon Hale)
  • My mother named me after a cow’s rear end. (Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin, Liesl Shurtliff)
  • Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. (Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell)
  • I know I’m not an ordinary 10-year-old kid. (Wonder, R.J. Palacio)

Do you have a favorite first line? Please share it in the comments below. Whether it’s colleagues contributing to a list of favorite first lines or a grandson beseeching, “Gamma, peez weed,” I’m blessed to be part of many communities that model, share, and encourage reading.

P.S. If you want more information on reasons to read, to help encourage yourself or your community to read, here are some places to start:

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cultivating a Culture of Reading: Sharing Reading

“There was a book you had up on your door last school year that I was interested in reading.” A colleague caught me in the hall at the end of the one day of school we had between this week's bookend set of typhoons. I was excited to be able to locate the book in question on my desk and pass it on. In my previous blog (see link) I posited 3 ways to cultivate a culture of reading for the communities I’m part of, whether at home or in school—modeling reading, sharing reading, and encouraging reading—and I reflected on the first one, because it doesn't often work to cultivate by fiat what I don't do myself. 

Sharing reading with my community starts with making my modeling more public: posting my current reads electronically on Goodreads and Facebook and putting posters of them on my classroom door (see photo above). It also expands into exploring what my community does or may enjoy reading. “Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs” by Sandra Boynton would not be my first choice of reading material, but I will read it ad infinitum to my grandchild, with great and unfeigned joy, pretending to poke my fingers on the “dinosaurs spiny” because he squeals with excitement when I do, and I delight in his delight, and in increasing his delight in general and his delight in books in particular (see photo below). 

On the same principle, though a number of years ago suspense, sci-fi, and YA romance would not have been my first choice of reading material, I read it now, because I love the satisfaction of being able to recommend a book to a teenager that he ends up loving. I’m also addicted to the excitement a student exudes when I come back to talk to her about a book she's recommended to me. (I make it a personal rule to always read a book that a student has cared enough about to recommend to me.) 

If you want to know how to figure out which books your community might like—whether that’s a grandchild, a child, or a student—you can take 2 approaches: (1) ask him or her, or (2) check out a blog like The Nerdy Book Club which issues annual awards in a plethora of categories from picture books to YA lit, in fiction and non-fiction (see this link for the 2017 awards). When a student is looking for a book to read, I use a combined approach: I ask, “What are 2 books you’ve enjoyed?” and then I find 2 or 3 recommendations based on that.

However you do it, keep sharing your reading. While there are few things more fun than animatedly sharing a favorite book with another avid reader, remember 2 things when you're dealing with a child who insists she hates reading: (1) there are no non-readers, only readers who haven't found the right book yet, and (2) it only takes 1 book to transform those children into avid readers. Don't give up.

How do you share your reading with your communities?  

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Grandmothering a Reader, Part 2

When I ask my 2-year-old grandson to choose a book to read, Tyrannosaurus Rex: Predator or Scavenger? is one of his favorites. It’s a level 5 reader, discovered in his father’s childhood bedroom. He presents it squealing, “Tee Wex!” which I have learned to interpret “T. Rex.” He has patience for about the first paragraph, and then we flip through the rest of the book, looking mostly at the pictures, where he observes, “Oh, fighting!” “Oh, eating!” The later pictures of fossilized, disembodied teeth upset him: he knows they are teeth, and in his world, teeth belong inside a mouth. Does he understand words like carnivore, predator, scavenger when we pause on a page long enough for me to pick out a sentence? No. But he is more familiar with those words now than he was when he first fell in love with this book. And every time we talk about it, he comes a little closer to the threshold of understanding. I’m reminded of the principle that matching a book to a reader sometimes has more to do with interest than with some  “reading level” determined by a formula involving sentence and word length. How better for children to truly understand how reading can open worlds to them than by reading above their level on a topic that grips them?

This past week has been about welcoming grandchild #2 to the world and getting reacquainted with grandchild #1—and a long flight from Japan to the US in order to do that. So I didn’t do any official teaching to reflect on, but as an English teacher who loves reading, writing, and training young people to, I’m always reading and thinking about reading: reading on the airplane, reading while holding the baby (wish I’d had a Kindle when my babies were tiny—so much easier!), reading to the toddler (last Christmas it was books about vehicles; 9 months later it’s dinosaurs and sharks), combing my daughter’s classroom library for YA books I haven’t read, browsing bookstores, and picking up a professional development book (Cultivating Curiosity in the K-12 Classroom) that I’d ordered to my daughter’s house. While doing all that, I’ve been reflecting on what it takes to cultivate a culture of reading for the communities I care about—whether at home or at school. I think it comes down to 3 things: modeling reading, sharing reading, and encouraging reading. 

I love to read, so modeling comes naturally to me. Any time I go any place where I anticipate waiting, I bring a book—to the dentist office, on a plane trip, sitting up with a baby.  I remember walking into a bank lobby with my 3-year-old. She saw the benches and magazine racks and immediately picked out a volume, reclined on a bench, and began leafing through the magazine. Which was in Japanese. Not that she could even read English at that point. But she knew from observing the important people in her life what to do when there was a bench and reading material in the offing. 

Sometimes people ask me, “How do you find all those books to read?” I talk to my friends who read, browse bookstore shelves, follow blogs of readers, research each year’s literary prize winners (Nobel, Pulitzer, Man-Booker, etc.), and keep a Pinterest board of recommendations and a Goodreads “to-read” shelf. See below for some ideas of where to start:

And that is probably as long a blog as anyone wants to read right now, so I'll save the next 2 points for another time. Probably my next one, since between the typhoon that knocked out power at my school (and stranded me in Tokyo on the way home from seeing my grandkids) early this week, and the one that's coming later this week, I may not have much classroom teaching to reflect on this week, either! But at least I have plenty of time to read!

P.S. For the original "Grandmothering a Reader," written on a visit a year earlier, see this link

Friday, September 21, 2018

My Favorite Writing Mini-Lesson

I got to do one of my favorite writing mini-lessons this week. And it wasn’t just the one lesson: I also saw how as I get more conscious and consistent regarding reading like a writer and writing like a reader, articulating it for my students and scaffolding it into my class using mentor sentences, the students are taking on those values and practices.

My favorite writing mini-lesson targets using a variety of sentence lengths. Students start by doing a quick write (5-10 minutes). Then I share a passage from Gary Provost’s book 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing that both urges and models the intentional orchestration of sentence length to create an effect. After that, students open the novel we’re reading to a given page, and read it looking for sentence lengths—longest, shortest, how they’re arranged, and what the effect is—to discuss with their table group of 3 or 4. Finally, they go back to their original quick write and revise it to make one sentence particularly short and one particularly long, sharing their work in their table groups when they are done.

The book we are currently reading in AP Language is The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. The purpose is to master the style of satire, and for the final assessment students will write a new letter from Screwtape to a junior tempter in the field whose “patient” is not an adult in 1941 England, but a teen at our school in 2018. So as we read and discuss, we are always thinking about what we might write. Previously we had listed the human vices and follies that Lewis has mocked so far, and added to the list any additional ones we notice in our context. The prompt for the quick write, therefore, was to select a vice or folly from that list that you are considering writing about, and explore what you are thinking about it.

The passage I use to introduce students to the purpose and possibilities of varying sentence length is as follows: 
This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create must. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium  length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals—sounds that say listen to this, it is important. (qtd. in Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools 91)

It’s great to see the students really engaging—discussing with each other the effects of Lewis’s arrangement of sentence lengths and then returning to their own writing to try to do the same.

As the students (as well as the teacher) see the value of this reading/writing connection, good mini-lessons beget good mini-lessons. Here are some of the others I used this unit:
  1. Semicolons to highlight parallelism, antithesis, and the juxtaposition of satire. Mentor sentence: “He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them” (25). In subsequent discussion, a student noted the same effect in the following sentence: “We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons” (39).
  2. Introductory appositives. Mentor sentence: “The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives, and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it—all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition” (153). In discussion we noted that this structure both emphasizes the list by placing it first, and leaves the reader feeling the worn out-ness spoken of in the sentence by the time she gets to the statement of it. Then we tried writing our own sentences on the model: “x, y, and z—all this had worn me out by the end of last week.”
  3. Ending appositives. Mentor sentence: “This, indeed, is probably one of the Enemy’s motives for creating a dangerous world—a world in which moral issues really come to the point” (160). Sentence frame to try: The human vice/foible about which I think I might write is ___—[noun clause further describing the named vice/foible]. My model try: The human foible about which I think I might write is false modesty—the way humans try to convince themselves of falsehoods concerning their gifts.

It almost goes without saying that avid readers tend to be better writers. I’ve been an avid reader all my life, and I think I’ve become an even better writer as I’ve worked on moving the reading/writing connection from a subconscious level to a conscious level. How do I do this? I notice effective writing moves, bring them to students’ attention, do some direct instruction, have them look for additional examples, and both model emulating and ask students to emulate those moves. The process may seem forced at first, but as I stick with it, it becomes more and more natural. It’s definitely worth it when I see the lights go on in students’ minds as they become conscious of this as well. The best resources I’ve found to help me on the journey are Voice Lessons, Mechanically Inclined, and Writing Tools.

What is your experience personally and/or in your classroom with reading as a writer and writing as a reader?

Friday, September 14, 2018

Connect Life and Literature with Nonfiction Text Sets

This week I gave a little tweak to a long-standing literature unit and transformed the lesson. Its strategy I have used in other units, but just hadnt gotten around to finding the resources for this one. This is the key: using text sets of articles, blogs, and infographics can incorporate nonfiction, deepen students’ understanding of themes, connect disciplines, and heighten purpose in literature study.

First, I pick a concept that shows up both in the work of literature we’re studying and in the lives and world of my students. Years ago I got the idea from Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice: Reimagining the Language Arts Classroom to incorporate the concepts of perpetrator, victim, bystander, and ally into my 10th grade unit on Alan Paton’s classic novel of South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country. (By the way: If you’re looking for ways to make your language arts classroom touch the lives of the children in it I highly recommend Christensens book.) In the past, I’ve introduced the concepts myself with a brief lecture-type mini lesson and then had students identify characters in the novel who fall within those categories—and hopefully extend the discussion to examples in their experience and the world around. 

This year, I took it a step further, giving students 4 readings to jigsaw to find their own answers the question “How does this reading deepen your understanding of perpetrators, victims, bystanders, and allies and how they relate to the breaking and restoring of shalom in Cry, the Beloved Country and in your life and world today.” 

I must say, I was helped by the fact that, unbeknownst to me, 10th graders had talked about bystanders in Health the previous year. When they came in and saw the definition for “bystander” projected on the board, they immediately registered recognition. I briefly feared my whole lesson would be redundant, but after discussing their understanding, realized that they had the perfect foundation from which to launch into my lesson. (I love discovering these cross-disciplinary connections!)

I asked groups of 4 to have each member choose one of 4 readings, meet first with the person from each of the other groups who had chosen that reading in order to discuss what to take back to their home groups regarding the prompt. Here are the readings, and a hint of what I’d hoped they’d get:
  • “The Bystander Effect.” A brief article explaining bystander effect, some associated studies, the assumed cause of responsibility diffusion, and a suggestion for how to overcome it if you are a victim: make eye contact with an individual bystander and specifically ask that individual for help.
  • “Bystander Do’s and Dont’s.” A one-page poster with practical advice. 
  • “The White Man in That Photo.” The story of a white Australian track star who protested with 2 black Americans in the 62 Olympics, and spent the rest of his life blackballed in Australian sports. (We won’t always be heroes for being allies…)
  • “To the Non-Racist White People: Please Just Be the First.” A black man’s story of harassment on a Portland train—yes, both racial harassment and the bystander effect do still happen today in America.

Discussions were so much better than they have been in the past, after just my explanation. One of the best was about the “Bystander Do’s and Dont’s.” My international school students realized the audience was US-based and asked excellent questions: “Is this true in Japan, too? Why and why not?” This lead to a discussion of the similarities and differences of bullying in Japan.

I love it when I am reminded that even with almost 30 years of experience, I can still make exciting discoveries and revisions in my teaching. What’s something new you’re trying? Or how do you use text sets to incorporate nonfiction, deepen students’ understanding of themes, connect disciplines, and heighten purpose in literature study?

Friday, September 7, 2018

Why I Make Time for Project Reflection

A team holds a post-game meeting. Military personnel hold an AAR (After Action Review). A business group debriefs the big deal that just came off. When I first heard about students reflecting on projects, I thought it sounded like a nice idea—if I could fit it in. And sometimes I did. Over the years, though, I’ve come to see it as essential for engaging students in their own learning, empowering them to analyze their own work, and  integrating even summative assessments into the learning of the classroom.

What does that look like? This week 10th graders turned in the final draft of their first processed writing. See last week’s blog for what I re-learned about the value of writing with my students through the drafts. This week’s is about the value of students reflecting on the process and product. (And of me, the chief learner in the room, reflecting on their reflections.)

When students came into the room on the day their final draft was due, the slide at the top of the blog was on the board. (See below for the peer revision rubric they used to guide pair work last week.) Following are some of their answers to the 3 prompts.

One thing I learned about writing while working on this piece:
  • When I read “Fish Cheeks,” Amy was describing the food that they ate for Christmas, and it helped me a lot to describe the cons that I experienced in track.
  • One thing I learned while writing this paper was to grab the reader with imagery and strong language.
  • One thing I learned about writing while working on this piece is that describing your feelings is hard. However, it gives the reader the feeling of the moment the author was in.
  • In this piece I really learned that you can’t revise enough when you write something. Even looking back right now, there are so many things that I would change.

One thing I did well; one thing I want to grow in:
  • I tried to make the reader feel like they are in and engaged in my narrative by adding dialogue, figurative language, description, and my thoughts. I want to improve in making my writing more interesting by using better choice of words.
  • I want to grow in being a better storyteller by drawing the reader in and keeping them engaged and also making a good conclusion. 

One specific question I have for Mrs. Essenburg about my writing in this piece:
  • What makes a good writer good?
  • How should I change my intro to be more interesting?
  • How should I improve using…better word choice?
  • When should I add details?
  • How do you get better at writing imagery?
  • How can I do a better job of making my sentences flow together?
  • How do I show my voice better?

One student raised his hand while writing his reflection and asked, “Is it alright if I ask 3 questions instead of just one?” 

“Oh, please!” I replied. “Student questions are like teacher candy—I love answering questions because then I know it’s something you really want to know. So much better than me giving out information no one is really interested in!”

Reading the students’ reflections also helps me assess my teaching as I catch glimpses of how students perceived and applied my goals for the project, and what my next goals should be in order to support (or sometimes redirect) their goals. I’m happy to see that they have the idea of writing for an audience, and that I’m doing a much better job of not just calling a mentor text a mentor text and pointing out a couple of things students could do in their writing, but getting students to actually adopt the mentor text for their own model. 

And I’m excited to note that they all seem primed for more because my answer to all of their questions is “Pay attention to your reading. When you read a passage that grabs your attention, ask yourself, ‘What made that good? Was it a good introduction? Powerful word choice? Interesting details? Striking imagery? Sentences tugging you breathless from one to the next? Great voice?’ Then try it in your own writing.” It isn’t copying if you’re discipling yourself to the patterns of the great.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Being the Writing Captain of My Classroom

Student: I like how you added that detail about the setting. I can see you there in the kitchen.
Me: Should I start with the phone call?
Student: No, the way you started with the setting all calm and then the phone call breaks in—makes me feel the contrast.

If you think I mixed up speakers in the above interchange, I didn’t. This is the power of writing to the same prompt along with all the rest of the learners in my classroom. I don’t always do it, and last year I really got out of the habit, but I did it for the first writing assignment this year, and the results were just so fun, I'm motivated to keep doing it. 

I mustered all my discipline to just write the initial journal quick write—and surprised myself by discovering I had a story I wanted to tell so much that I stretched the 15-minute investment to 20 because I was that committed to capturing my thoughts. The next day in class, when students were turning their prewrite into a rough draft, I typed up that journal—revising just a bit, but I had to get it done in the period. Twenty minutes, tops? 

The next day I projected my typed draft—mostly the opening paragraph, though I attached the whole document to the Google Classroom assignment as a model, in case students wanted to take the time to see the whole thing. I said, “This is really rough. I’ve got a few places I just dropped in phrases to remind me what I want to add but didn’t have enough time to flesh out. I know this sentence here never gets to a main verb, so it’s just a big fragment. But I’m not worried about that right now. Right now I want to ask your opinion about my opening.” And we had a conversation that included the dialogue at the top. 

Here are some of the great things that happened, both then and in the next couple of days:
  • I got truly helpful feedback from the students.
  • I modeled applying the writing strategies we’d examined when reading two mentor texts.
  • I modeled the writing process--how rough a rough draft can be, and what it looks like to revise rather than edit.
  • I modeled how to have a peer-revising conversation.  
  • When the students moved into peer revision time, and I
    circulated among them having mini-conferences, more often than not, when I made a suggestion, the writer said, “That’s what my partner already suggested.” (My take-away: Ask first what suggestions a writer has already gotten. I knew that, but was trying to save time.)
  • Finally, when I quickly glanced over revised drafts the next day, I saw some of the most thoroughly revised drafts I’ve ever seen from 10th graders.

If you’ve never tried writing assignments with your students, I highly recommend it. Set yourself a timer. Teach them the tricks you have to learn yourself in order to not sit and stare at a blank page for three hours. Model bad first drafts, big revisions, and writerly questions, moves, risks, failures, and successes. If you’ve tried before and run out of steam, like I did, I encourage you to try again. See what you learn, and what your students learn. We don’t have to do it all the time, but there are things that happen in my own understanding, in my students’ understanding, and in the classroom we share, that don’t happen as quickly and as deeply any other way.

After all, the team captain doesnt lead from the bench.