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.