Category: Resources for Educators

“How to Enjoy Poetry” by James Dickey: Timeless Advice from 1982

One of my colleagues was deep-cleaning her room this summer, and left this gem in my mailbox:

It’s a two-page article from 1982, written by the late James Dickey–you may know him as the guy who wrote Deliverance. At the time that this article was printed, he was also the poet-in-residence at the University of South Carolina. While I’m sure that Mrs. F’s motivation for sharing this piece of paper with me was partially the humor of the quaint title and the very pensive portrait of Dickey even so far pre-Instagram, I did take the time to read it seriously, and it is seriously so good!

In the world of Internet everything, sometimes it feels like we’re trying to re-invent all of our material and approaches all the time, but reading “How to Enjoy Poetry” made me remember that such things are not always necessary. Poetry is as eternal as the human experience, and Dickey’s way of explaining it is incredibly accessible and accurate. Before you throw all your paper-based binders away, make sure to mine them for gold!

I’m definitely going to use this piece with my classes this year, and I’ve scanned it into a digital copy so that you can too. I’ll put a link to the .pdf at the end of the post. But first, I want to share some of my favorite moments from the article.

“The sun of poetry is new every day, too, because it is seen in different ways by different people who have lived under it, lived with it, responded to it. Their lives are different from yours, but by means of the special spell that poetry brings to the fact of the sun–everybody’s sun; yours, too–you can come into possession of many suns: as many as men and women have ever been able to imagine. Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world.”

Find and fall in love with the full article here, and enjoy your own pursuit of the path! How to Enjoy Poetry

5 Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom

Sweet, sweet structure.

When we talk about writing, it’s easy to think of it in terms of what we’re saying. That’s the most exciting part, right? The stories of our lives, the new discoveries we make in research, the opinions we’re burning to assert… Those are our reasons for writing in the first place. But what about the craft of writing? What about making sure that those messages we so dearly want to get across are actually heard? There’s an answer for this, and it comes from a component of writing that is rarely prioritized in the high school classroom, but I’m going to try to prove here that teaching it well needs to be a bigger deal.

Structure! It’s a word that we don’t typically hear kids use when they talk about their writing, but it’s my new favorite writing focus with my teenage students. 

Before I get into telling you all the great things about teaching student writers about structure, let me clarify what I mean when I use the term, just in case it’s different than the way others may think about it. For me,

STRUCTURE =

*order of information  (There should be reasons why certain pieces are ordered first, before/after other things, or last.)

*overall organizational vision (What sections does this project have? Is it moving in a linear or nonlinear way?)

*where breaks and white space occur (Where are the shifts in topic, tone, or time? What lines or sections need emphasis?)

I started looking more closely at structure this year when I noticed that my students increasingly tend to write in big unorganized blobs of text–no paragraphs, no headings, no discernible order… just one big blob. The case of the missing paragraphs sent me out to teach structure directly, and it resulted in a slew of unintended positive side effects! So in case you’re not convinced yet, read on…

Five Reasons to Focus More on Teaching Structure in the Writing Classroom

  1.  Better close reading skills. When I teach writing, we work with mentor texts quite a bit. The idea is to understand a professional writer’s “moves” so that we might imitate them. But whereas strong imagery or repetition are things that students notice easily, they sometimes need prompting to find structural choices. When intentionally bringing attention to things like paragraph breaks, reasons for segmenting/sectioning writing, and watching for shifts in topic, tone, or time, students get a better sense of the specific impact that structural choices can have on readers. It also makes them more effective analyzers of text overall–they start noticing these moves in other reading contexts, too.
  2. More rigor in creative tasks. I love the freedom of poetry and narrative as much as my students do, but sometimes it leads students to believe that anything creative that they write on the page is beyond evaluation just by virtue of the fact that it’s creative. I recently had a conversation with an advanced student who is working on a poetry collection. She asked, “Since my poems are kind of all just my personal thoughts, is there really any way to tell if they’re good or not?” “Yes,” I told her, because while nobody can tell anyone what to write, there definitely is such a thing as good and bad creative writing. Part of my solution for this student was to examine her structure, because strong creative work uses it very intentionally. I advised her to think about her stanzas–why were they in that order? Why did she shift to a new stanza or a new verse when she did? Why did the stanzas have five lines each? Even young writers who do implement structural moves in their writing sometimes don’t have any actual reasons for them. Working with structure is a great way to challenge students to gain greater control and nuance in their creative writing.
  3. Huge impact on revision quality. Writing in any form can be completely transformed when it is purposefully reordered or even just when paragraph breaks are used well with intention. I try to help my students learn that paragraphs are units of meaning, not length–I still sometimes get students who wonder “how many sentences should be in a paragraph?” Of course, they should be evaluating that themselves, paragraph by paragraph. This is a great time to teach how and why we use breaks to help our audience understand that we are moving–maybe we’re changing the topic. Maybe we’re moving from a present narrative to a past memory that’s connected to that narrative. Maybe we’re isolating a one-line paragraph with white space because that line is really, really important. A structural revision can really transform a draft for the better.
  4. The “organization” category in standardized writing scores. I won’t spend too much time on this one other than to say that the ACT Writing Rubric allots 25% of its scoring to the organization category. Blob writers cannot score well, even if everything else about their writing is on point.
  5. More effective arguments. It’s a pretty simple premise that when you’re trying to convince someone of something, you need a very strong opening point to gain the audience’s consideration, and the strongest possible closing point to seal the deal. Yet, I have many students who organize their argumentative writing simply in the order that they thought of it initially or in the order of the sources that they discovered, with no real thought to why certain pieces are placed where they are. Working with students to strategize about the most convincing order of ideas can be a game changer in the impact of their argumentative writing. It ends up feeling far less like an endless stream of “And you know what else?!” and far more like a cohesive, crafted persuasive piece.

The school year is almost done! Maybe for some of you lucky ducks out there, it’s already done. However, if you’re a writing teacher, take some advice from me and jot the word “STRUCTURE” somewhere in the early September days of your 2018-2019 planner. I think you’ll find that it will make your students’ writing click into place in new, exciting ways.

A Lot to Carry: When Compassion Fatigue is Part of the Job

Have you ever picked up a bag that was far heavier than you thought it would be? Maybe it’s a purse, or a suitcase, or possibly a backpack. There’s that moment of surprise, then you make a closer inspection of the object: What’s in here, bricks?! There’s a physical readjustment. Oh yeah, we think, lift with your legs. And we hoist it up, managing as best as we can.

Teaching is kind of like that sometimes. A lot of our students are carrying heavy things around. Some of those things they put in our arms, and we end up carrying them, too.

Certain privileges land in our laps as educators, and one of them is being witness to the stories of young people. Especially as English teachers, who encourage our students to learn the power of writing about their lives, there are things that come across our desks that can accumulate quickly in emotional weight. Kids might write about trouble with friends, family issues, self-esteem problems, bad memories, mental illness… We forget this, but everything that touches the adult world touches children, too. Young people aren’t too young to have pain, and while most assignments are intentionally skewed to accommodate positive memories, sometimes stories about wounds, whether old or new, need somewhere to go.

It is both a blessing and a burden to be trusted with such stories. On the one hand, you feel grateful that the student would trust you enough to share a difficult memory. On the other hand, the little moments where you say to yourself “I can’t believe a kid had to go through this” can add up quickly and silently. Professionalism demands that we keep these stories confidential (barring, of course, any support that we notify in situations where mandatory reporting or guidance interventions are required). We understand and honor this. We just lay these stories on top of our own.

We might also hear about something that a student has gone through after the fact, getting looped in to a confidential notification so that we can best support and accommodate the student. Especially when such things happen to students that we’ve worked with closely for a long time, knowing that they are hurting can be crushing. We can’t talk about these stories either, because students deserve our confidentiality and discretion. We keep a professional distance and try to keep it about the learning, while trying not to worry too much. But we don’t forget that stuff. We just carry it. Some years give us a lot to carry.

It’s a tough situation to be in. Of course, as teachers, we are more removed from student situations than families are, and sometimes I wonder to myself how much I really have the right to worry or not worry over a particular kid. My professional responsibility is to make sure that students have the environment and tools to learn as best they can. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t lie awake some nights hoping things are going to be ok for one of my students.

Teaching is a career about people, and I wish there was more concrete emotional support–for pre-service teachers all the way up to veterans–for the caretakers themselves. There are plenty of feel-good messages out there, of course, that encourage us to think of the difference that we’re making and to stay positive and grateful. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when it comes to practicing real skills surrounding self-care and managing anxiety, I think people who work in caring professions tend to have deficits. We don’t always understand the extent of the weight we carry, until we find ourselves sick or down in a way that takes a while to come back from. And we don’t always know what techniques work best for us to keep our (emotional and physical) selves healthy enough to keep going. I count myself among this number–I am still learning how to identify how much weight is in my backpack, so to speak, and how I need to tend to myself to make sure I can keep carrying it.

Self care fuels emotional strength! As I’ve found out personally, it also may spur an addiction to bath bombs, so watch out for that one. If you or your students need a little more information about aspects of self-care to help make your backpacks lighter, check out this beginner guide that I created for my homeroom kids (and for me): Self Care. Use/distribute however you like!

At the end of this Teacher Appreciation Week, I have two messages to send:

To students, never doubt that your teachers care about you and worry over you, even if they don’t seem to express it outright.

To teachers, never feel bad about practicing self-care or reaching out for support of your own. Just because your soul can provide for others doesn’t mean it can go forever without being renewed and fed.

 

Scaffolding Synthesis: Smaller Steps Toward Rigorous Writing

If you teach at the high school level, then you know that teaching synthesis writing is an important part of our jobs right now. Undoubtedly, some of that is motivated by the writing section on the ACT, which is essentially a truncated, 0n-demand synthesis essay. But synthesis writing also represents a skill that should be in every well-educated student’s back pocket. It requires writers to not only present information or have an opinion, but rather to analyze the varied perspectives on an issue, organizing and evaluating them to create a complex argument.

In other words, good synthesis writing involves the kind of rhetoric that we wish most adults out on the internet had at their disposal. Therein lies one of the difficulties of teaching this kind of writing–today’s students really struggle to write about multifaceted topics without oversimplifying. Some simply present their opinion as the only reasonable way to think about something. Others get a little more sophisticated by acknowledging two sides–an extreme pro and an extreme con. But that’s not reality, nor is it good writing. How do we get students to explore sources and really present a whole spectrum ideas about an issue?

I’ve been working to solve this problem for several years now, and each year I add something new to my teaching strategies for synthesis. This year, I was really happy with the results, and wanted to share a couple things I made to help my students learn the smaller skills that are needed to be successful with synthesis–just a couple extra puzzle pieces that can help boost some skills.

SCAFFOLDING TIP #1: Before asking them to write critically, make sure they can read critically.

The presentation below guided some of my pre-teaching about recognizing perspectives within texts–I pulled some articles on current events and we used them to work through the question set on the last slide… first together, then individually. This crucial first step really helped my students start thinking about each of their sources as representing a particular viewpoint, rather than simply viewing all sources as “information.” This lesson also helped equip my students with vocabulary meant for recognizing multiple ways of looking at an issue: “opposing perspective,” “overlapping perspective”, “additional perspective,” etc. Coming to class already having these kinds of reading and thinking skills are not a guarantee, even for upper level high school students. Pre-teaching them (or re-teaching them) made a big difference in the sophistication of my students’ thinking over the whole unit.

 

SCAFFOLDING TIP #2: After modeling how to find sources on a topic, have students draw a spectrum of viewpoints and locate their own.

Once students start getting into their research, I have them create a numbered list of sources they could potentially use in their writing. Then, I show them how to draw a spectrum of views and locate different viewpoints within that continuum. This process really helped them visualize the full conversation surrounding their topics. (And, in some cases where students did not draw anything in the middle, it was an immediate indicator that I needed to provide more remediation before they began writing.) I conferenced with each student on his or her perspective map, and the conversations led naturally into their writing. Below is my example and some student examples.

SCAFFOLDING TIP #3: Focus on assessing writing skills, not quantifying checklists of writing tasks.

As far as grading goes, I created a new rubric to focus on the skills I wanted to see students demonstrate. This scoring guide was helpful to my students while drafting and revising, because it was based on my learning standards for the unit. Instead of superficial conversations like “How long should it be?” or “How many sources should I have?”, the new rubric led to discussions about how to make a position strong or what successful organization looks like. Feel free to modify my rubric (below) for your own classroom!

Communications 3: Synthesis Unit Essay Rubric

____/ 10 Complexity of thought: Writer is able to describe various viewpoints on a topic that extend beyond a mere binary pro/con relationship. The spectrum of views, including mid-point or partially supportive ones, is explored. Writer identifies elements of the topic that make it a complicated one.

____/ 10 Clarity and strength of position: Writer holds a specific, clear viewpoint on the topic, which is well-supported with reasoning. Writer’s convictions are immediately observable and presented with a strong voice.

____/ 10 Perspective-taking ability: Perspectives are presented in an objective way, then reasonably considered and evaluated. Description of opposing viewpoints is measured, with academically appropriate acknowledgement of the influences that create different points of view.

____/ 10 Organization and transitions: Paragraphs are used to signal shift in topic or tone. Overall order of paragraphs follows a logical flow. Successful transitions are used to create a link between ideas as a new paragraph begins. Introduction sets up successful context and thesis statement. Conclusion offers strong, compelling final points.

____/ 10 Working with sources: Sources are introduced effectively, put in context for the reader, and used to provide evidence for various perspectives on the topic. The use of direct quotes and citations is grammatically sound. If bias is present in a source, it is identified. A complete “Works Cited” page accurately records sources used in in the paper.

____/ 10 Use of language: Mechanics, grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation are correct. Academic voice is engaging and formal enough to be appropriate for an academic context. (You/your do not appear)

____/ 60 TOTAL

Scoring guide for each standard:

0   Not present / 3   Still emerging / 6   Beginner /

9 Proficient / 10  Exemplary

Found Poetry as a Tool for Engaging with Difficult Text

Here in Wisconsin, the January weather can be pretty brutal. We all cope in our own ways, but my preferred way is daydreaming about summer as hard as I possibly can! It was in one of these reveries that I found myself thinking back to the day I spent with the UW-Milwaukee Writing Project summer institute, working with the facilitators and teacher consultants in the beautiful setting of the Lynden Sculpture Garden. One of the writing activities we discussed (and tried!) that morning stuck with me and my colleague, Mr. B. We knew we wanted to try it with our high school juniors as an entry approach to a difficult textA special thank you goes out to Jenny Hussa of the UWMWP 2017 ISI for sharing this found poetry teaching idea with us! Here’s how it went.

The approach is very simple, with several possible variations. The most pared-down version includes these steps:

  1. Tell students that you’ll be reading a text to them, and that you want them to listen for words that seem important, sound distinctive, or just strike them in some way. As you read aloud, the students should jot down a bulleted list of those words and phrases in their notebooks.
  2. In small groups, the students compare their lists. Working together to identify the best (10-ish) words/phrases from their communal pile, they then write these winning words on paper strips. *Teacher note: don’t forget to make these ahead of time!
  3. Still working together, students then organize the words to create a poem that reflects the essence of the text’s message. (We let our students add words where needed.) Then, they make it official by gluing the poem to a sturdy sheet, ready for classroom display.

Since we’re working with high school students, we used our whole class text of The Crucible as the starting point. Miller’s introduction–which provides commentary on the socio-historical context of the play–describes 1692 Puritan culture in Salem, Massachusetts. The nuances of this society are difficult for students to understand, because the norms and beliefs are so radically different from our contemporary America. On top of that, Miller’s words are dense and challenging. It’s prime “tune out” territory, which is the kiss of death when you’re just starting a whole class book and trying to convince teenagers that it’s going to be cool. Found poetry to the rescue!

When working with a text where comprehension is a challenge, it’s important to get students identifying key details and subsequently figuring out the relationships between those details in the author’s argument. This activity achieved both of those things in a way that was creative, collaborative, and engaging.

Check out some of their poems! They use Miller’s language in new ways, all while clearly showing an emerging understanding of the novel’s historic setting through the author’s eyes.

Thoughts on Why We Write

If you’re not an English teacher, you may not realize that we had a holiday recently: October 20th, which is The National Day on Writing. The celebration, created by the National Council of Teachers of English, is designed to promote writing not just as a literacy component, but as part of life’s essential story-sharing force. In case you missed it, you can catch up quickly just glancing around social media at the #whyiwrite hashtag, now nine years strong.

This year, I spent National Day on Writing Eve in the best possible way: with a colleague and a classroom full of young people who showed up to the inaugural meeting of our sparkly new writing club, The Young Authors. We wanted to create a very simple group for high school students, to honor that work of secret solo writing that so many engage in. What if, we asked, there was a meeting place for all those kids with stories burning inside them? What would happen if we simply provided a place to write together? As it turns out, (and as usual:) if you build it, they will come. In our first and second meeting, we introduced ourselves just by sharing what we typically write in our free time. Out it spilled: “I write poetry…. I’m working on a novel… I’ve been writing songs for the past couple years… I write dark and disturbing fantasy short stories… I don’t know what I write, but I know that I want to!” These kids are authors already, and now that they’ve been assembled together, I can’t wait to see their collective power grow. There’s a unique, quiet magic to a room full of people all scribbling and tapping away, bringing their inner worlds to life while working side by side. It makes me smile to see the people walking down the hallway past our room, peeking in curiously at a whole bunch of teenagers with focused expressions, silently immersed in creative work, while the late afternoon sun streams in and music seeps from the computer speakers. Sometimes I wave at them. They’ll know who we are soon enough.

This is the spirit of the National Day on Writing: the knowledge that more writing–and more support for it–is always a good thing. We are so excited about this new student group for lots of reasons. There are many plans down the road for things like attending writing conferences, creating commemorative mugs (!), and pursuing publication opportunities for these young writers. We want them to know that we are here to value and champion the words that they want to share with the world.

At the first and second meetings, we asked these students to submit a #whyiwrite response, and reading these really sums up everything about why fostering a love for writing in young people is so important. I leave you with a selection of them here.

I write because I am in control of what I create. There are no boundaries and no one can tell me what to write.

I write because it calms me down.

I write because I love playing with words.

I write because it helps me express myself artistically.

I write because it helps me cope with my depression. Writing is escape.

I write because it lets my thoughts and feelings play out on paper.

I write because I love creating new worlds out of nothing but my imagination.

These voices tell us that writing is so much more than whatever happens on a worksheet. Writing helps us connect with our whole selves when we do it right, and helping students get to that point is part of our cause as teachers.

I write because the fins of ideas are not meant to batter against the glass of a sealed jar.

How about you?

Tackling the Classics: Helping Students Adapt to Reading Literature with a Capital L

I love it when students share what they read with me. I encourage them to interact with each other (and me!) through Goodreads, where we can share recommendations, reactions, and reviews from our reading lives. Many times, students help me learn about cool new titles that I should add to my classroom library. On the other hand, sometimes they make me shake my head in a very special brand of English teacher sorrow. All I really need to share here is this pair of student Goodreads ratings from last year:

Fifty Shades Darker, 5 out of 5 stars.

Hamlet, 3 out of 5 stars.

Help.

Now, please understand–I am 100% in support of student choice in reading. Our school’s independent reading program, which emphasizes volume and choice has done wonders for the reading culture and ability of our students. And if reading a little bit of what I would generously rate as garbage helps a student become a stronger reader who’s ready for more challenging things than they would be otherwise, I’m all for it!

But… I also have a deep love and respect for classical literature–I am an AP Literature and Composition teacher, after all! When I do teach a full-class text that comes from a more challenging place, I want to give students the best chance to adore it like I do. It’s not easy. Many canonical texts are extremely challenging. They use unfamiliar language structures and words, and abide by different standards for craft. There are old references, and types of humor that aren’t even common anymore. Is reading something like that as enjoyable as reading a fast-paced, on-trend piece of contemporary young adult lit? Maybe not. Or maybe it is just as enjoyable, just in a profoundly different way. Students often don’t understand why we ask them to wade through Shakespeare’s works. It’s our job to help them see that something like Hamlet will not provide the same automatically visceral thrill as something written at their own independent ability level from their own time. But the mental challenge that it presents is absolutely sumptuous–if one knows to be looking for it.

I started this year with a discussion that I think will be really helpful for my literature students in learning to love Literature with a capital L. It’s about reading for different purposes and the different types of enjoyment we can get out of different texts. I’d like to share the notes from our discussion–maybe they’ll help you clarify reading for different purposes with your own students.

Reading for fun and entertainment

*Purpose: evaluating quality and enjoying emotionally

*Focus on plot, always asking “What happens next?”

*We look for thrill, suspense, and surprise, personal connections to characters, and happy or otherwise satisfying endings

*Texts are typically fairly modern and fairly easy to read

*We want to know… was it good? Did you like it? How did it make you feel?

Reading for analysis

*Purpose: exploring and uncovering mentally

*Focus on message, asking “What moves does the author make and why?”

*We look for craft and language choices made by the author, connections to social realities and philosophical questions

*Texts are typically older and fairly difficult to read

*We want to know… what statement does this text make about life’s big questions? What did this text make you think about?

I find it helpful, too, to talk about literature also in terms of fashion–styles that seemed normal in one era seem dated to us now… but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t cutting-edge and boundary-breaking in their own time. The literary fashion of today’s storytelling tells us that predicability is the killer of a good story. Well, tell that to Oedipus Rex. I’ve found that when students learn to judge literary texts with different tools of measurement, the ability to appreciate (and, yes, enjoy!) comes a little more easily.

Happy teaching!

P.s. Here’s a handy-dandy little graphic about the functions of literary reading to help seal the deal.

Beautiful Words and Community Building–Two Goals for a New Teaching Year

Happy New Year… new teaching year, that is! The restorative powers of summer vacation have worked their magic, and I am completely refreshed and ready for my ninth year of teaching to begin. I feel extra excited about this September because I’ve reached a point of joyful re-commitment to being a teacher after a couple conflicted years of quietly taking exploratory steps toward other career paths. Last spring, I abandoned that preparation with the help of wise people in my life who helped me arrive at the decision that working in education is really, really where I still want to be. I couldn’t be more sure of that right now, and that certainty has prompted a fresh passion akin to that of my first-year teacher self. I’ll freely admit that there have been some times in recent years where I had to remind myself that Younger Me would want to punch Current Me in the face for how cynical or powerless I was feeling about my teaching career. But that’s how life is–circles, cycles, death and rebirth. And here we are at a new beginning once again.

So I am READY TO GO. This new vigor is making new things happen. I even re-covered my bulletin board! I have big plans for unrolling cool new elements of my classroom that I’ve never attempted before, and I want to share two of the first ones I’m going to be trying out. Maybe they will inspire you!

NEW GOAL #1: Beautiful Words on the Superb Insights Board

I remember a workshop with Kelly Gallagher where he mentioned that he likes to begin or end his classes each day with what he calls “beautiful words”–a small snippet of great writing that can come from any source, including student work. That idea made so much sense to me. Kids write amazing things all the time, and while an individual may benefit a little bit from me writing “WOW–what a sentence!” on his or her essay, my whole classroom would benefit far more if every student could appreciate that awesome phrase or paragraph, thinking about how it was put together and what makes it so good. So I’m taking a simple step to showcase the beautiful words of my students with a display area on my (newly re-covered) bulletin board. It looks like this. [Click image to enlarge]

I have four different areas where I’ll be showcasing student words. I’ve preloaded it with examples I pulled from last year’s student work.

Beautiful language – poetic, lyrical, figurative language that sings on the page

Intelligent point – an especially smart or insightful observation

Words to live by – wisdom, wit, or humor

Now that is how to write a sentence! – impressive use of complex grammatical constructs

My plan is to update the board essentially constantly. Whenever I run across a portion of student writing that is particularly impressive, I’m going to type it up, anonymously share it with the class, and add it to the board. I think this practice will offer opportunities for micro-mini-lessons on writing, while also celebrating the successes of a wide range of students. (The students currently featured on the board were not all “A” students! But their voices all had something worthwhile to share.) Since any motivation to write is good motivation, I’m hoping that kids will start really trying to outdo each other to make it on the board!

 

NEW GOAL #2: Community Building with Class Newsletter 

A part of me has always wanted to put out a classroom newsletter–something similar to what my kindergarten teacher used to send home to my parents that covers what kids are learning in class, with updates and news. But I have never gotten myself together quite enough to make a classroom publication happen. I mean… who has that kind of time? Not me. Or do I?

As I was reflecting this summer, I realized that I can make this goal happen as long as I scale it correctly. While I do not have time to put together a frequent newsletter with photographs, excerpts of student work, and meaningful quotes from the authors that we’re studying, I do have time to send a succinct email every couple weeks. A colleague of mine blew my mind last year when she showed me how to easily mass email all the parents of my students at once. (How the heck did I never learn about that before?) I’m going to utilize this newfound power to create a bi-weekly email newsletter of sorts that covers just essential news from my junior class. Here’s the draft of my first message:

News from Mrs. Casey’s Communications Classroom

Hello, parents and families! If you’re getting this email, it means that your child is a student in my Communications III class. I’m trying something new this year and sending an update via email every couple weeks, so you can learn more about what is going on in our classroom. I promise to keep these emails short and sweet. You’ll see the following categories in each email:

What are we learning?

Any big projects or tests coming up?

 Ask your student more about…

Don’t forget that your student’s current grades are always available via Powerschool, 24 hours a day. Also, a full description of daily lessons–including homework assignments, announcements, links, and more–is featured on my Haiku page accessible via your student’s portal.

Best regards.

I hope that the newsletter will build community with my students’ families. Through my updates, I hope that they feel closer to what’s going on in my classroom, and that they are more likely to engage their child in conversations about what they are learning and creating in positive, interested ways. I find that during parent-teacher conferences, many parents feel like getting their child to talk to them about school is a shot in the dark. I think these updates will help shed more light, hopefully strengthening the triangle of communication and support between parents, students, and me. It will give me a chance to share awesome news about student success, and to help parents feel more connected and involved with our classroom work.

There are more ideas where those came from, but for now I’ll just say this–Happy New Year, teachers! Punch that inner cynic in the face and go do good work. It’s going to be an amazing year!

 

Working on the Right Things: A Day with Penny Kittle

Here’s my department, grinning with joy on a full day of professional development in June. Why are we beaming with megawatt happiness, you ask? Well, it has everything to do with the tall, brilliant blond educator in the middle: the one and only Penny Kittle.

We’ve waited patiently for two years since first scheduling Penny to come do a literacy workshop with our district and surrounding area teachers. On Wednesday, June 21st, in the early morning, I got to pick her up from her hotel and–by way of Fiddleheads Coffee shop–escort her to the presentation site. Engaged and brimming with positive teacher energy from the moment she began, Penny delivered a beautifully curated tour through daily reading, writing, revising, and modeling with students. While there’s no substitute for hearing Penny speak in person, I’d like to share some of the most pressing, inventive, and inspired moments from the workshop, in hopes that some of you might also gain from this sunbeam of professionalism and passion.

A Dose of Truth:

I found myself nodding deeply at this opening statement about teachers: “We’re working hard, but sometimes I think we’re working on the wrong things.” Penny started the day by reminding us of some sobering statistics, which represent behavior that many of us see in our classrooms every day. Plainly said, American students are not sustaining the increase in reading volume and skills that they initially obtain in late elementary school–in fact, many finish high school without truly finishing a single book. Meanwhile, an average of 5,000 pages per year of reading are expected in the first year of college. No wonder so many who are admitted to universities simply drop out.  Students are not prepared for college, and it’s our problem to solve.

Today’s educational landscape is different–very different–than it was 50 years ago. Many well-meaning educators who are following a traditional model find frustration when they ask classes to tackle daunting schedules of lengthy whole-class texts throughout the year. Many students fake their way through a schedule like this and simply don’t read, relying on Sparknotes and YouTube summaries instead to skate by, get “right answers” on quizzes and achieve a conversational knowledge of the plot without actually experiencing the book. This kind of classroom practice can’t keep stumbling blindly forward. There’s no use in trying to cover oodles of high-level curricular content when kids can’t read longer material over sustained periods of time. Teachers will check off items in their syllabi, but not all students will learn. As Penny put it, “People get focused on teaching stuff, not kids.”

The first step to a better way is understanding the difference between what is essential, what is important, and what is nice to know. For example, while being familiar with Jane Austen’s work in particular may be nice to know, what’s truly essential is helping students learn to read more, read better, and (eventually) read deeper.

Classroom Practices:

So how do we build up our students and help them become readers? Penny quoted Richard Allington’s research, which provides a starting equation: engagement in reading + volume of reading = complexity in student thinking. Allington’s work makes clear that “older struggling readers will never become fluent and proficient readers unless volume is increased.”

Penny’s model of incorporating high volumes of independent reading into her classroom work helps build a foundational practice of reading, prioritizing choice as an initial motivator which leads to students building their own reading lists that grow in depth and sophistication through close conferencing with the teacher. Penny is adamant that there are no non-readers, simply dormant readers, and that any kid can find their own reading home, where books start to push them outside of their own environments and perspectives in life-changing ways. (You can read more about this in Penny’s Book Love.)

Penny’s message is that consistent, one-on-one conferencing with students about their reading is the ideal way to push reading skills and volume forward–constantly engaging with, checking in on, and making suggestions for students. I’ve seen this in my own practice… one particular student I worked with this year called himself “not much of a reader” in September and logged a measly 30 pages (if that) per week. After a whole year of dogging him with suggestions and asking about his reading progress every day, he ended up being the kid with quiet tears streaming down his face in the back of my classroom during silent reading, turning the final page of a 500+ page book. That’s Penny Kittle magic right there.

In addition to reading, there are a lot of other things Penny’s students are working on each day. Her daily classroom practices provide time for at least a little bit of each of these actions every day:

READ

WRITE

STUDY

CREATE

SHARE

It’s a simple list of five words, but if you do them in the classroom every day, it adds up to serious literacy power.

Coolest resources:

In the section of the workshop that focused on student writing, so many useful and game-changing resources were mentioned. While this isn’t all of them, I’d recommend these in particular as truly cool resources for the writing classroom. Check them out!

Best American Infographics : this volume, published annually, is great for modeling argument in non-fiction writing, craft lessons, and a starting point for informational writing.

Flipgrid: video sharing in a bite-size, super easy format. Penny’s students make short videos to tell her what to focus on when giving feedback on their writing.

Penny Kittle’s website: resources to make all of this stuff I’m talking about happen!

Reclaiming Conversation by Sherry Turkle: a place to start when thinking about how to teach conversation skills and academic discussion.

Moving Writers web community: home of a massive, categorized mentor text dropbox–a content area teacher’s dream.

Bottom line:

One of the most important ideas that Penny shared was that a school’s social capital lies in the connections between educators and the extent to which they share that knowledge. It’s a reminder that none of us is out here alone–we need to connect, share, and build knowledge whenever possible if we want to construct a powerful school community. Those of us in this profession need to stand fast and commit to practices that will move our students forward–into the world, into a life of reading, writing, and learning. It’s not always easy, but we can do it, because we know why we’re here. To quote Penny one last time, “Teaching well is an act of rebellion that is based on an act of love.”

We’re still glowing too, Mrs. Kittle.  Thanks for everything.

Holden’s Brain and Thoreau’s Campaign: Perspective-Taking in the Literature Classroom

Back when I was a newly-minted teacher, I wrote about the versatile, fail-safe nature of the character letter as an assessment strategy. It’s priceless to come upon a type of assignment that is easily adaptable to different teaching contexts and always engaging for students–a “perfect assignment” if you will. I remembered that post recently, and I realized that I’ve got two more additions to the perfect assignment list! I’ve used both of these assignments in my junior level communications class, but they could be used with many different texts, whether long or short, fictional or non-fictional. Both assignments approach the important task of perspective-taking: an essential thinking skill that is a prerequisite for rigorous writing tasks like analysis and synthesis. Please feel free to use and adapt these activities in your own classroom!

Assignment #1. Narrator’s Brain

What it is: This is an assignment that I typically use with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s an especially good exercise to use with the character of Holden Caulfield because he’s so unreliable; understanding this kid takes some serious inferring and knowledge of human behavior. Since Holden’s not always forthcoming about what’s really on his mind, I ask students to draw it. They are provided with a blank picture of a brain, and I ask them to fill it in with Holden’s thought territories. I ask them to use size, color, and placement within the brain to indicate the weight and awareness that accompanies each section.

What to pair it with: Psychoanalytic literary criticism focuses in part on identifying the psychological defenses and core issues that manifest within a text. Discussing a text through this lens helps students be on the lookout for the “real story” behind what’s mentioned in the narration. Example- For Holden, his obsession with wondering where the Central Park ducks go in winter mirrors his own fears of abandonment and adulthood. Students need to get to that level of insight before an assignment like this can be meaningful.

Mentor texts: Here are a couple great images to start from.

^Scientifically informed  illustration for Time Magazine by Leigh Wells

^Emotionally informed illustration by graphic artist The City Limit 

 

My assignment sheet: <<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)

 

Assignment #2. Author as Politician

What it is: While teaching difficult texts in AP Literature, a problem that I’ve noticed again and again is students’ difficulty to grasp the authorial intention that drives the narrative in fiction texts, or even the messages in non-fiction texts. In other words, students can tell me what happened in a chapter of A Tale of Two Cities, but they struggle to identify Dickens’ scathing social criticism and allegiances that are evident in his voice. One day (honestly, out of desperation), I made up an assignment on the fly that asked students to design a political campaign for Dickens. It worked well to get them focusing on using the text as evidence for what the author was thinking, and I had a big breakthrough. This year, I duplicated the idea with my juniors’ study of a segment from Emerson’s “Civil Disobedience”–we read the text, and then I asked students to decide what they thought Emerson stood for, politically, including designing a political sign for him.

What to pair it with: It was important to me that my students had an understanding that we’re not talking about today’s national politics in this assignment. I made sure that my students had an idea of the political context in Thoreau’s day, and that neither Republicans nor Democrats existed at that time, at least not as we know them today. We talked about how individual political beliefs can’t always be distilled along party lines, and set up our analysis of Thoreau as a build-your-own kind of political ideology. (All this to say: it was clear that I wasn’t asking students to classify Thoreau as a liberal or a conservative. In fact, he had elements of both and neither.) To get here, it is essential to meaningfully annotate the text. Whether students can do it with guidance or independently depends on the class and the content.

Mentor texts: Political ads and advertising slogans are everywhere. When one of my students was confused about the purpose for political catchphrase, I used the motto of an easily recognized national business chain as an example. She then understood: “Oh, so the main idea that the audience should think of when they think of this person?” Yep!

My assignment sheet<<click here for download

Student examples: (Click on any image to enlarge)

 

I hope these two assignments might find a use in your classroom… but it’s almost summer, so put them in your folder for 2017-2018. Happy Summer Break, all!