Saturday, December 27, 2014

Leaving a Reading Community

  • “I LOVED this book!” (10th grade girl approaching me across the library holding a copy of The Secrets of Mariko: A Year in the Life of a Japanese Woman and Her Family by Elizabeth Bumiller. Why did she love it? Because she’s half Japanese, and it sounded so much like so many of the people she knows.)
  • “Yeah, I’ve heard of him. I was thinking about reading that next.” (10th grade boy in response to my suggestion of branching out of his usual fantasy genre and trying Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game—since he had just told me how much he liked The Amulet of Samarkand because even though it was fantasy, the characters and their motivations were so much like real life.)
  • “I thought this was just going to be a regular plot, but it was really deep.” (10th grade girl about The Memory Keeper’s Daughter)
  • “I wrote down my questions about each chapter.” (10th grade boy when I asked him about all the post-it notes sticking out of his copy of Crime and Punishment. I told him about my effort to understand and appreciate One Hundred Years of Solitude.)

I love having these conversations with students about books and reading. After 9-1/2 years of having them with 10th graders at our school, I can now almost always think of something to recommend. (One recent failure: At the beginning of this year one student wrote that he had enjoyed reading The Westing Game in middle school, and he’d like to read another book like that. I had to read The Westing Game first. I’m still trying to think of another book like it.)

And now, I’m leaving. I’ve had my last set of book talks with these students. The first student—I want to talk to her about the book I just read, Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore. (The librarian recommended it to me, saying this student had just read it. It’s the book I’ve been seeking for a Japanese perspective on World War II, and it was fascinating!) I also want to recommend to her Lady Gracia by Ayako Miura and Bushido: The Soul of Japan, by Inazo Nitobe. 

The boy who did his final presentation and project on what happened to the Kony 2012 movement—I want to see if A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah or In the Land of Magic Soldiers: A Story of White and Black in West Africa by Daniel Bergner might interest him. 

And who will recommend Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal to the 3 or 4 Philippino students we have per class? (With no other country have I found such a unanimous response when I ask citizens from blue collar workers to doctors to name a well-known author. So I got the school library to order it, and I recommend it. If they’re not quite ready for it in 10th grade, I tell them to keep it in mind for 11th or 12th.) 

Will someone else pick up the graphic novels that I’ve been introduced to and started introducing others to in the last year—Boxers & Saints, Maus I & II, Persepolisabout life in 1900 China, Holocaust Europe, and Iran during the Islamic revolution.

There is the senior who in 10th grade loved gorgeous writing—she talked to me about The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, reading marked sentences. I want to recommend All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr to her.

But it’s time for me to move on. I won’t be returning to my school of 27-1/2 years at the end of the Christmas holidays.

And while I’m already nostalgic for what I’m leaving, I want to think about what’s brought me to this point of enjoying student book talks so much, so I can keep doing it in my new home. 

  1. Reading widely to cultivating my own love of reading while searching for what will cultivate my students’ love of reading. You can’t teach what you don’t practice. I try to read some YA fiction as well as pushing the bounds of my literary knowledge, reading each year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and Man-Booker Prize winner, receiving GoodReads newsletters, browsing World Literature Today and Booklist, as well as whatever is recommended in professional reading (like NCTE conversations: The Other Wes Moore is on my to-read list) and by students in book talks. (If I want them to take my recommendations seriously, I need to take theirs seriously. The Amulet of Samarkand is also on my to-read list.)
  2. Being familiar with what is in the school library. When I compared recommended titles from Book Love with our catalogue, I was surprised at how many we already had that I wasn’t aware of and hadn’t read myself. I cured that last summer. (Maus I—it stops 1/2 way through! Has no one every asked about Maus II? I did. Now we have it, and at least one other faculty member and one student has read it.) 
  3. Talking with the school librarian about books. See…so many of the things above. Talk to your librarian. You are on the same side: You both love books and want others—colleagues and students—to love them too. There might be budget constraints. But work closely. Understand each other. Recommend books to each other. Trust each other’s recommendations to kids—refer them to each other. Ask for things. Appreciate what you get. I asked for Boxers & Saints. She said, “Why? No one is reading American-Born Chinese. And it’s expensive.” I said, “I’m recommending it to students and faculty. The 5th grade teacher and middle school principal want to read American-Born Chinese. The world history teacher wants to read Boxers & Saints. Here’s what they’re about. Here’s the awards won.” And she ordered it. And all the above people read them. As well as several students.)
  4. Building a class library. I’ve been building mine for a couple of years, but this year is the first time students have really made use of it. Maybe because I really modeled using it. And gave them time in class to use it. When I packed it up to move, I didn’t yet know what grade level I was preparing to teach, and many of the books were still out, being read. I know I’ll miss some. Like The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL by Eric Greitens, which I saw in a bookstore 1-1/2 years ago and bought with 2 particular students in mind. I passed it on to them when I got back to school in the fall, even though by that time they were out of my class. I’ve talked to them both about it since them, and they loved it, and it has not returned to my library, so I trust someone somewhere is enjoying it. It was well worth the investment, and once I get to know my new community, I’ll begin rebuilding my classroom library from the bones I shipped.
  5. Talking with students about books: the ones they read, the ones I read. In my school up to this point, students have been required to read a certain number of pages outside of classroom reading per semester and to talk to the teacher about the books read. I need to find out about my new school’s current outside reading policies. Having read Book Love, I more effectively talk to students about the books I read.

It’s been a great 27-1/2 years—and greater every year. I will miss it, and every student, parent, and colleague who contributed to it. And it will be intriguing to see how what I have learned will play out in a new situation. Cheers to 2014; bring it on, 2015!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Significance and Choice: What Does It Look Like in Your Class?

Lessons for the week: the importance of significance and choice. I offered several new essay prompts, and even the drafts are so much better than in previous years. (And there’s an added bonus for the teacher—How would you like to hear your students pleading for the necessity of future classes to experience the unit they just did?)

In addition to one very open-ended essay question at the end of the Human Dignity unit built around the short Holocaust memoir Night, by Elie Wiesel, this year I offered 3 more specific questions, but still with the opportunity for students to articulate what they found significant about the unit. 

Here are the prompts:
  1. Why is it important for young people today to read Night? (Hypothetical situation: The English department is considering dropping this book because “nobody cares about the Holocaust anymore.” This essay is to convince them to keep the book in the 10th grade curriculum.)
  2. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the oppressed.” This is what Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Do you agree? 
  3. Is the world on a trajectory of increasing regard for human dignity or increasing disregard for human dignity? What is your role?
  4. What is the most significant thing you have learned about human dignity this unit?

Two disclaimers here. First, significance is ridiculously easy in literature. After all, that is WHY people write literature—to find, explore, protest, discover, struggle with, and communicate what they see as significant. Other fields might have to dig a little deeper. But surely there is a reason you love your field, a reason THIS unit is important and irreplaceable. What is it? Help the kids see it, own it. Second, significance starts with unit and lesson design—from the beginning of the unit I have to have a significance in mind that I am targeting helping students discover. Any assessment of student learning is first an assessment of teacher instruction. That’s a little scary, but it’s also empowering. If students are not getting what I want them to, I can change the instruction.

I read good answers to questions 2 - 4. And part of their beauty is that students who don’t particularly feel that future students MUST read this same book don’t have to fake it. So that the students who DO pick it must have at least some commitment to the book itself. For now, then, I’m going to focus on answers to question 1. 

It is absolutely invigorating to read students whose forte is not even English class argue for the necessity of the English unit and/or work just studied:
  • 10th graders have only a shallow understanding of the history that has built this world today. Reading a book like Night and connecting it to an article like “Being Muslim in a Mad, Sad World” and a movie like Hotel Rwanda is important for 10th graders for these reasons: learning about the event, the leader, and the lesson of human dignity.
  • This book also I should not look down on other people and not be prideful. I feel like there is a lot more that I could understand if I think about it more. 
Have you ever tried asking students to protest the removal of a given unit from the curriculum? What would that look like in your discipline, class, and age group?

For me, there’s a week of class and then exams before Christmas break, AND I’m in the middle of moving. I’m stressed in some ways, but I’m so energized when I read my students’ papers!