Friday, January 25, 2019

Fostering Students' Independent Reading Lives with Authenticity and Choice in Assessment

What do you do when you finish reading a book, and how do you decide what to read next? I generally find a friend and say, "Hey, I just finished this great/weird/awful/thought-provoking book! Let me tell you about it...." And when I'm done, the friend tells me about a book she's recently read, and that goes into my to-read list (which currently shows 91 titles on, in addition to the stack on my literal bookshelf at home). 

I want to foster my students’ independent reading lives, so I want them to conduct those lives in ways (1) that adult readers do even when there are no assignments and (2) that reinforce those lives individually and communally. I don't have the perfect system, but one idea I've been working on and that we did in my classes this past week was our quarterly independent reading share. 

Students have a choice in how they share a book they’ve read independently this quarter: they can present in a roundtable format (see photo above) or they can post a review on Students are all on Goodreads because that is part of the summer reading program coming into my class: get yourself an account, friend me and others in the class, post at least 5 books on your to-read shelf, and post at least 1 review of a book you read during the summer. 

I like the choice for several reasons. (1) Both options accomplish the same objectives: a bit of accountability for reading, an authentic audience for reflecting on that reading, and the opportunity to pick up further reading ideas. (2) Whether students are speaking to a group of peers or writing online, both experiences involve life communication skills with real audiences. (3) Choice itself increases motivation, buy-in, and learning. (See last week's blog on choice.) (4) Finally, it acknowledges different giftings—discussion and writing are both important in my class, and there isn't a choice in the matter much of the time. You have to learn to collaborate productively and you have to learn to write. 

But now, for once, the introverts don’t have to talk and the extroverts don’t have to write. Though I've also learned to ditch my stereotypes, being surprised by who chooses which! I’ve had quiet classes where the majority of students shock me by choosing to present because of the community feeling it builds. Students can also be dumbfounded at each other’s choices. Some wonder why in the world would someone give themselves a writing assignment when all they really have to do is come to class and wag their chin about a book for a couple of minutes? Conversely, others wonder why in the world someone would choose to speak in public when they could just quietly plink the words into their computer alone at home. I’m never able to predict how the split will come out, and I have discovered that it is vital to ask a couple of days ahead of time how many people are planning on sharing in class—it makes a difference in lesson planning.

I could make even better use of Goodreads. I just started getting really serious about it about 3 years ago when I realized that a few reading friends from different periods in my life were all active on Goodreads, and I could actually keep up with what they were reading! I kept to-read lists, but not on a website—what a pain! And why set a reading goal? I'm going to read anyway. Gradually, as I've discovered personally fulfilling reasons (it sure is cool to see a graphic at the end of the year of all the covers of books read!), I've used it more and more. 

Similarly, as long as my students are going on Goodreads once a quarter to update their to-read lists or post an assigned review, they’ll drop it once they leave my class. But in the meantime, every quarter when they DO go on, I notice a couple more friend connections made and a couple more books added to to-read shelves. It’s an introduction to possible ways to pursue an adult independent reading life—as well as an introduction to the very idea that there are adults out there doing this: it's not just a weird English teacher thing. Maybe one of these Januaries I’ll carve out in-class computer time to get them all to set up their own reading challenge. 

What kind of reading did students share either in class or online? Such a variety! There were non-fiction books like Evicted, Japan at War: An Oral History, Killers of the Flower Moon, Addicted to Outrage, Jesus Freak, and The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence. There was also fiction like Buffalo Soldier, Running Full Tilt, Uglies, Dark Matter, The Martian, and a first reading (after seeing all the movies) of the entire Harry Potter series. My favorite outcome, though, was the way Maus 1 and Maus 2 are being rotated between my 10th graders and 11th graders. An 11th grader shared Maus 1 with shining eyes in class Tuesday and inquired about Maus 2, which I told her a 10th grader was sharing in class on Thursday, but she could get it from him. Friday morning, before first period started, she was in her desk not doing homework or catching a few more winks, but reading Maus 2.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Giving Students Choice Whenever Possible

One of the things I love about being an adult is getting to choose. What to make for supper. Whether to read a professional book or take a class. What I’m going to blog on today. If I am more engaged and energized when I get to choose, certainly my students must be, too. In fact, research shows that choice increases student learning in all kinds of ways, including increasing ownership and intrinsic motivation, and activating brain areas for efficient learning, so I try to offer it whenever I can. As I’ve worked on this, I’ve found more and more ways to do it, including increasing content with jigsaw activities, having students choose vocabulary, offering several different prompts for writing or other assessment, or even just introducing background information, as I did Tuesday in AP Language. 

The piece we were going to read was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Last year I was searching for background information and found this great Time magazine article relating how Time itself had decried King as an outsider and the Birmingham demonstrations as “poorly timed,” but 8 months later named King “Man of the Year.” This year I wanted to supply that article, so I made copies and put 4 in the middle of each pod. 

11th graders discussing rhetorical context for King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"

But I also wanted more opportunity for students to exercise choice in exploring the rhetorical context. Sometimes students have remembered that the summer reading we did—Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath—has a chapter that addresses the Birmingham protests. I got several copies of the book out of the storage cupboard and stacked them on a shelf. Several Chromebooks were unreserved in the computer lab next door, so I grabbed them. Finally, running my eyes over my classroom library shelves, I spotted the graphic novel March, which is one more medium for communicating the history of the Civil Rights movement, and might even capture someone’s attention enough to make them want to keep reading. I pulled it off the shelf and put it on display.  

I have the advantage of teaching this class first period, so if I leave things on the desks, I can count on one or two of the students who come in early to start browsing—those who aren’t scrambling to finish their math homework, get that burning question about that science test answered, or use every pre-8:25 minute to catch up on sleep. Then during ragged time after the period-opening vocabulary quiz, as students finished at different rates, I asked them to first read the article on their desk, and then, if they had time, continue their research into the rhetorical context of “Letter from Birmingham Jail” any way they wanted—pointing out the stack of David and Goliath copies on one side of the room, the Chromebooks at the back, and March on the top shelf of the bookshelf at the other side.

The result? Students engaged in every resource, had lively small group discussions when I asked small groups to share their findings with each other, and when I asked each small group to share one thing they’d discussed with the whole class (my usual protocol), we learned an important tidbit that informed the rest of our discussion over the next 3 days: that the letter was written on scraps of paper and smuggled out piecemeal. We wondered how that process had affected the organization.

Here are some other ways I’ve given my 10th and 11th grade English classes choice this week: 

  • Writing: Pick 1 of the 3 poem rough drafts you wrote, and bring it to a final draft.
  • Poetry assessment: Pick 1 of these 4 poems to analyze by fully annotating it, showing your mastery of relevant literary terms and reading strategies, and whatever else your brain does to grapple with the poem.
  • Vocabulary: Yesterday I assigned each 11th grader one page from “Letter” to comb for 2 or more vocabulary words—primary focus on good argument words, but could be any words they don’t know, or, if there are no unknown words, ones they probably wouldn’t naturally use in their writing and want to try. We ended up with words from seldom to concur to zeitgeist! I’ll condense them into a class list of 20 for next week.

In each of these activities, students were engaged and learning. I will continue my quest to provide choice for students whenever possible not only because it increases student learning, but also for a purely selfish reason: teaching is so fun and energizing when students are engaged in their own learning.

10th graders annotating the poem they chose out of 4 provided

Friday, January 11, 2019

Let's Make Books as Contagious as the Flu!

What if books were as contagious as the flu? (Hello, January...) They are, in a way.

During Christmas break I got an email from a student telling me she couldn’t wait to see me and tell me about this book she had just finished reading. Then the first day of school, another student walked into the room waving Dark Matter, which I had recommended, and saying, “Mrs. Essenburg, this was the best book! Do you have that other book you were telling me about?” “The Flicker Men? No, the science teacher still has it, but I’m guessing she finished it over break, so you should ask her for it.” Dark Matter didn’t even make it back onto my library shelf before it was claimed by another student. 

This is one of the many reasons I read—of course because I enjoy it, and because I want to learn things, but also to be part of instigating that circle of book joy, helping students (or colleagues!) discover a good book, or having them come back to me to share a good book they’ve discovered. People who think reading is an anti-social activity have never experienced this kind of reading!

Just before break, another teacher said to me, “Hey, I saw Contact on your classroom library shelf. Have you read it? It is amazing!” At this point I had to admit that actually Contact was one of the very few books on my shelves that I had not read—I’d picked it up on a give-away table somewhere, recognizing the title from recommended reading lists—but that this conversation had just catapulted it to the top of my to-read list. I read it over break, and it was a really intriguing exploration of the relationship of faith and science.

At Christmas, I gave my in-laws a copy of My Beloved World, the autobiography of Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina U.S. Supreme Court judge. I thought it was one of the best-written autobiographies I’ve ever read. (Even better than Michele Obama’s Becoming, which I read on the airplane on the way back from the U.S. after Christmas.) Did my in-laws enjoy the gift? Last time we Skyped, my father-in-law was raving about the book, and my mother-in-law chimed in, “Oh, yes, he read me most of it out loud!” (Both books are in my classroom library now if you want to stop by and check them out.)

Coming back from break, I found my book order that included Skyward by Brandon Sanderson had arrived. There is a contingent of teachers at my school who are Brandon Sanderson fans, but this is my first foray into his universe. Skyward is now #2 on my to-read list because first I have to read Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue—the book the student emailed me about during break. Another student had given it to her as a present, and she is loaning it to me. 

Isn’t book love wonderful? Who do you tell about the good books you read? Who tells you about the good books they read? What can we do to create a book epidemic?

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Mid-Year Assessment to Launch Us into Post-Christmas Learning

My 2-year-old grandson and I were poring over the airport page in a Richard Scarry book. His parents had clearly been preparing him for Grandma and Grandpa’s impending departure after a 2-week Christmas visit. We discussed all the different aircraft pictured and confirmed several times that I was going to go on a passenger jet—not a helicopter, a crop duster, or a military plane. He asked me to sing a song, so I launched into “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” but only got through, “Dont know when Ill be back again,” before tearing up. 

At the same time, I’m also getting excited about what I’m getting on the jet plane to return to: a classroom full of students who have learned a lot so far this year, and are ready to learn a lot more. How do I know? Part of my exam right before Christmas was to have 10th graders analyze how they had grown so far this year as readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers/listeners. They had to make a claim (framed as a letter to me, to parents/guardians, or to themselves) and supply specific evidence from all we had done first semester. I was pleased with their answers when I assessed them before break, and reviewing them now is getting me back in the mood for returning to teaching and learning on Monday. Here are some of the things they said:

ReadingStudents noted that they grew in their appreciation of reading and their ability to read with purpose:

  • Reading was one of my least favorite things to do. When I took Honors English class, I was surprised about how the reading pace of this class was very fast…. However, after going through this class for a month, I started getting used to it. Reading started to become my everyday lifestyle. I also noticed that reading isn’t that bad. Reading was like watching a movie.
  • I have learned that reading novels is not simply just for understanding the plot but it is also to help understand the world and myself.
  • (Letter to self voice) Before this semester, you read without purpose. You read to be informed or to be entertained, but never to grasp what the writer is truly trying to convey. Through books like Night, Cry, the Beloved Country, or even the book about Stephen Curry you read, you were able to tell why they are significant. Night taught you about inequality and discrimination. This memoir was important because instead of reading to be informed about the Holocaust, you read to see why human dignity and loving others is important. Even the [independent reading] Stephen Curry book. Instead of just reading about his life, you read and found the greater theme of his life, that it doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have, what you lack or have too much of. All you have to have is faith in God, an undying passion for what you do, and the will to do whatever it takes to become successful. This is what you took from the book, not just he went to college here or he did this in high school. Now you can apply it to other books and read with a purpose.

WritingReading is closely connected to writing as we become more conscious of paying attention to how an excellent writer captures our attention and communicates her ideas so that we can figure out how we can implement those same moves in our own writing. Students showed their understanding of this, as well as a growing sense of audience:
  • Reading “Fish Cheeks” was exactly what I needed. The amount of description it provided really gave me a lot of inspiration and a sense of guidance on my personal narrative.
  • (Letter to self voice) Without a message, writing is pointless. Writing can either be one of the most meaningless things you do, or it can be one of the most powerful things you do. Hopefully you’re using it correctly, and using it powerfully.
  • I also want, as a writer, to move people with my paper.
  • In my human dignity essay, I finally wrote an introduction that I felt good about.
  • I learned how to conclude my essays on a strong, inspiring note, instead of a weak summary of what the reader just read. Telling people to take action in my neutrality essay is a good example of how I did that.

ThinkingThinking is what we do as we read effectively, it’s why we discuss our reading—collaborating to deepen our own and others’ thinking—and it’s what we’re hammering out for public consumption in our writing, so it’s difficult to separate it from the other skills, but while realizing this organic connection, students also commented specifically on how reading drove them to further research and thinking, how the thinking formed by writing became deeply personal, and how seeing both sides of an argument can transform thinking: 
  • Books such as Night and An Ordinary Man (Intro) helped me dive deeper into different wars and problems of the past and today. Learning about the past has been particularly exciting. I think I’ve spent multiple hours reading on different articles on the internet on World War 2, and it’s not just about the Holocaust and the wars in Europe. I’ve also read a lot on the wars in Asia and the Pacific. Not only have I researched on the past, but now that I think about it, I’ve spent a lot more time reading the news (something I don’t usually do).
  • Another big thing that influenced me this year is the human dignity essay. This essay made me think of others in a way I never have. I used to be careless about how a homeless man is doing, or the charity box we see every day. But now I realized that those people aren’t just the poor or needy, but they are humans just like me. I have been very touched with this fact.
  • (Letter to self voice) Seeing the other side of an argument is crucial because if you don’t, you just have one side to the story. Sounds a lot like bias to me. Something you always complain about is when sports analysts or reporters are biased to one side. Well, look in the mirror sometimes. Luckily you learned to listen this semester. Through all the group discussions, and all the times you disagreed with people, you were able to listen to their point of view and even had your mind changed at times. Keep doing this because once you go out into the real world, more people are gonna disagree with you. But you’ll also meet people who are going to change your mind.

Speaking/listeningSpeaking and listening—discussion—are how we collaborate in order to deepen our own and others’ thinking: we arrive at deeper insights as we make our own thinking available to others and avail ourselves of their thinking, synthesizing and building ideas. Both introverts and extroverts have their own challenges in making this collaborative effort successful, but they both articulated the importance of rising to those challenges:  
  • I will be honest. I have not improved my communication skills at all this year. In fact, I think I am getting worse. This is because I now think before I say things. It sounds like a very good thing, but it isn’t if your brain moves at 10km/hr when others’ move at 80km/hr. I think I will get better as I go along because I just started this new way, and I am still not used to it. I hope I don’t give up on thinking just because I am slow…. Keep on thinking because that is what makes us humans different from other creatures.
  • (This student compares how she felt during the first discussion of the year—the second day of school on the assigned summer reading of Things Fall Apart—to how she responded to a recent jigsaw discussion [she read the introduction to Nicholas Kristof’s book Half the Sky]): “Although I did read [Things Fall Apart], I was very insecure to express my opinion and was scared to jump into the discussion…. Since my [jigsaw] group was a very expressive group, it was hard to jump in, but I took the opportunity when I had the chance. I was given very little time to deliver all the information back to my [home] group, but I was able to summarize and organize everything in my head to explain clearly.”
  • In order to respond to others, we have to listen to what they’re saying first. I actively listen to others now, to build off of their point, respond to what they said, and give feedback…. Discussions also require more thinking in a very short amount of time than I previously thought. Not just thinking about what I’m going to say (because then I’m not listening to them), but thinking about what they’re saying from their point of view in order for me to formulate a better and more impactful response.
  • In the beginning of the year I would be the talker, never giving other people the chance to say their opinion. Now I see that it is better to listen. If you listen, wait till everyone has said their opinion, you could bounce off of everyone’s ideas and get the whole class involved.

I’m really pleased with what students have learned so far this school year—and getting excited about where we go from here, starting Monday! How do you get yourself and your students ready to launch into post-Christmas learning?

Besides, I DO know when I'll be back again: June!