Saturday, July 12, 2014

Scary Book Love

Scary. Thats what writing can be. Because you think, and when you think, you might end up in a different place than you were before. And different can be be scary. 

I think that in the course of writing this blog, I might have convinced myself that I need to make some really big shifts in my teaching. And just when I was getting comfortable....

First, I really like Book Love author Penny Kittle’s objectives in teaching books to high schoolers:
  • Students develop their own reading life. Just think of all the good school things avid reading correlates with--vocabulary, writing, reading, general knowledge, and preparation for college--as well as empathy, enjoyment, and lifelong learning.
  • Students develop a sense of efficacy in knowing where their skills are, where they want to go next, and how to get there. 
  • Students think, speak, write critically about what they read.
Second, she has great ideas for how to accomplish the above, with many specific examples of how to implement them. Last week I reflected on the first 5 chapters. The final 4 chapters (6 - 9) are about conferencing with students about their reading, engendering good responses to reading, 
  • Chapter 6: “Conferences.” These are 3-4 minute meetings with individuals while the class is reading. She has great lists of questions to ask as well as examples of conferences she’s done.  
  • Chapter 7: “Responding to Reading.” Kittle has excellent ideas for reading notebook prompts, and examples of how she models responding to the prompt from her own reading. 
  • Chapter 9: “Nurturing Independent Readers in a Classroom Community.” I loved all of these ideas:
    • Big idea books: In the classroom, she keeps a stack of notebooks, each labelled with a different big topic in literature (death, love, growing up, identity, etc.). Students select one that their current book fits, and write a reflect on the connection. This can be kept from year to year, creating a community of readers through time as well as within one class, and serving as a source of recommendations for other students. 
    • Creating a literature web of relationships across time/space/genre using independently read books as well as works studied in class. How does the Divergent series fit with other dystopian literature, current and classic? How does it fit with other coming-of-age books, current and classic? Other romances? 
    • Quarterly reflections that include assessing their own reading in terms of difficulty and rate, writing minireviews that can spur other students’ reading selection, setting new goals, and writing a reflection essay. 
  • Chapter 9: “Creating a School Community of Readers.” What would it look like if the whole school supported this kind of reading?
    • 4th quarter cumulative reading reflections would be passed on to the next year’s teachers, who would have time to read them. 
    • Principals, departments, professional development would target helping teachers teach and assess reading even it better; 
    • Schoolwide reading break: Kittle’s high school takes 20 minutes 4 times per week for everyone, everywhere to read.
I can see many ways to adapt what she does to what I do in... 
  • Class novel studies: tweaking the journals students keep, being sure to model my own responses, working in conferences with students while they are having time for assigned reading, doing more of what I’ve just started with having students reflect on the craft of mentor texts.
  • Independent reading students are required to do and meet with me about each quarter: doing more book talks, having students set reading goals and reflect on them, using some of Kittle’s questions and model conferences, connecting independent reading to class reading more, doing virtual “big idea notebooks” on the class Moodle site. 

But really this is just tweaking if students don’t do a lot more independent reading. Which means a lot less whole-class assigned reading.

If I could accomplish her objectives, I would gain more students with an independent reading life, and more students with a sense of efficacy for their own reading improvement. I could maintain the same level of critical thinking. They would do more reading. We could do more shared short pieces as model texts (poems, short stories, essays, excerpts). This would be good.

But, we would lose big shared literature experiences. What would I cut in English 10? Probably Cry, the Beloved Country. I absolutely love it. My students find it difficult. Some like it okay by the end. Some cite it as important to their reading life in their senior project. And we spend 3 weeks reading it. Is it worth that time? What if students were to read twice as many books of their own choosing during that time? And I (and the 11th and 12th grade teachers) could still nudge students toward reading it when they were ready? 

That’s only 1 loss versus many gains. And I’ve been saying for several years now that I think we’ll eventually have to move to text sets for differentiation for some of our class novels in high school. So maybe it’s not even a loss. 

Well, I won’t jump into anything rashly without talking to my department colleagues and my principal--so for this next year, we’ll still read Cry, the Beloved Country. But I will do the following:
  • The tweaks mentioned above.
  • Discuss this with my department colleagues--a book discussion in the fall, or department meeting time?
  • Continue to be sure my reading life includes plenty of YA lit that I can share with my students.

Who knew summer reading could be such hard work and so scary?

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