Category: Reading

If You Build It, They Will Come: Thoughts on Green Bay’s UntitledTown Book & Author Festival

A little less than a month ago, I attended the inaugural UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, Wisconsin. When a few friends and a former professor initially told me about the concept for a weekend-long, free-to-the-public celebration of reading and writing, I geeked out. When I subsequently learned that Sherman Alexie and Margaret Atwood would be speaking in the closing keynote, I had a full-out geek attack. A whole weekend with readers and writers everywhere, teaching and learning about how to read and write with more passion and prowess? Be still my ink-dripping English teacher heart!

It’s easy to wane in enthusiasm in late April and May, when so many of us have to put on a tough face to keep kids (and even ourselves) motivated about learning. This year, though, attending UntitledTown was exactly the reinvigoration I needed to finish the teaching year out with gusto. I spent the whole weekend thinking, “I remember! I remember why I love  teaching about the written word so dang much!” It was a downright gift, and one that’s too good not to share. So, in hopes that some of my inspiration overflow may find its way to you, fellow teachers, I’d like to share my top four takeaways from my weekend at UntitledTown.

On teaching writing – Good storytelling comes down to details and human understanding. In her session “The Art of Truth,” author Blair Braverman put it so well: “The structure and principles of telling stories are the same in fiction and non-fiction. The most important thing to make writing vivid is your eye for rich, surprising detail that reflects human decisions.” She encouraged those who wanted to write compelling stories to sit down and talk with others–even strangers–at length, because to write is to also understand the thoughts and experiences of others. In an author panel entitled “Thrills and Threats and Tenderness,” Larry Watson encouraged writers to not think so much about technique, urging instead to “Think about people.” Ben Percy offered his variation on this theme as well, saying “Narrative progress and emotional progress are equally important. Transformation is essential for good writing.” Great reminders for the writing classroom, especially when we need to get back in touch with why we do what we do.

On the power that language holds over our lives – The word that ends the argument in a moment. Sherman Alexie speaks the way he writes, with a hectic, hilarious, sweeping energy that can draw laughter and tears with equal ease. In his talk on his upcoming memoir, he told a story about his own mother and father arguing in a dying tribal language that he didn’t understand; he remembers rarely hearing his father speak it, but when he did, he could bring the room to silence. “That’s the tragedy of losing a language,” Alexie said. “You lose the word that ends the argument in a moment.” Preserving words, using them, and respecting them is a way of harnessing power. Why teach a high school kid to read Shakespeare? This is why.

On the importance of the humanities – Engaging human wholeness. Margaret Atwood is a mage of modern English language literature, a tour de force of a woman. In speaking about her celebrated dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, she made the point that in the totalitarian regime of the book, there are no novels, no poems, plays, or shows–it is a world where women aren’t allowed to read, and nobody ever has to get offended by art. In her talk, Atwood gave nothing short of a battle cry for protecting the humanities in our own world: “Who are we? The humanities answers this question differently than science…. not everything about us is the sum of our biological parts. Any educational system that ignores this is not engaging human wholeness. We are art-making beings. We are story-making beings. Through art, we not only express, but we explore and question.” I cried.

On reading and writing communities – If you build it, they (the readers, the writers, the lovers of words) will come. The whole concept of this festival was an unproven one, and the board wasn’t completely sure what to expect–would the little city of Green Bay really be enough of a destination to attract enough speakers and attendees to make the vision possible? The answer is yes. Even in the cold, dismal weather, the city was hopping. Events were packed, and people were buzzing with excitement. Several times over the weekend, I thought to myself, “Seriously, where did all these people come from?” People of all ages, shapes, and styles who wanted more chances to read and write. They were everywhere. It spoke to the fact that our communities are full of people who are (often quietly or secretly) hungry to write and read more. How fortunate that, in Green Bay, they could come together and find each other!

The writers are out there. Someone had to put the first book in their hands. Someone had to tell them their stories were worth telling. Someone had to show them how and why to love language. We teachers are the headwaters of that stream, the keepers of that flame. And it makes me proud. Thanks, UntitledTown, for reminding me that my teacher-writer-reader spirit is not (even close to) alone.

English on.

Classroom Library Makeover: Before and After!

At the beginning of the school year, I promised to pursue the goal of building my classroom library. I also promised a set of before and after pictures to show the progress I accomplished over the year… so here we go!

BEFORE

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AFTER 

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I am really proud of the progress I made, needless to say! Here’s a quick run-down of what worked, what didn’t, and what’s next.

What worked:

  • Asking for book donations gets results! I received donated books from students, parents, community members, and my own friends and family. It turns out that a lot of people have extra books around that they are happy to donate to the good cause of young readers. The key is to keep asking!
  • My classroom library promoted more reading in an immediate, engaging way. Kids really do read books when they are readily, freely available. Especially when I displayed the newest additions at the front of the room, they were often borrowed immediately. It’s also great to be able to say, “Oh, you finished your book? Here, grab one of these next.” Getting a book in a kid’s hand ASAP can often be the difference between progressing toward a reading goal and falling off track.
  • I am so proud of my student readers. They read like gangbusters and although I can’t take credit for most of it, I do know that they like reading things I recommend to them. That’s one of the most enjoyable things about the classroom library–it’s preloaded with recommendations! I have read many of the titles on my shelf, and I’m at least familiar in a cursory fashion with ALL of them. It makes it easy to quickly find the perfect title for a bookless student.
  • A book return station is important. This is an important practical detail. Even normally responsible students seriously cannot put books back correctly. No matter how many gentle reminders are administered, students will misclassify and abuse the books by shoving them any which way on the most convenient shelf. Don’t even try. Get a crate like this instead, and reshelve everything yourself on a daily basis. Some battles just aren’t meant to be won.

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What didn’t work:

  • As I wrote in my original post, I had planned to use the app Lend It! to manage book checkouts. It turned out that using the app (and using several others of the same ilk that I beta tested) was just too clunky, unreliable, and time consuming. I ended up defaulting to keeping track of checkouts via old school paper signout method. That was still problematic, though, because sometimes students would take books without formally checking them out. I am still figuring out a balance between making sure that books are freely and easily available and keeping better track of my collection.
  • That leads me to my next problem, and in talking to my colleagues it seems that this is just the nature of the beast–books will go missing. Kids will inevitably lose them, lend them to unsanctioned friends or siblings, or accidentally destroy them. This is simply a reality of sending books into backpacks. It can be disappointing to see a portion of the library just disappear, but it’s still worth it to know that more kids are reading as a result of the fine-free borrowing system. But hey, books are meant to be read! I would rather have my kids read books into oblivion than have a pristine collection that lives only on the shelf and never gets checked out.

I’m looking forward to another building year for my classroom library. Our reading culture is alive, well, and growing. I love being a part of that. I’m progressing on my own goals as a reader–which include becoming the resident science-fiction expert–and my students are becoming more sophisticated, more excited readers with each year that passes. A serious commitment to reading results in sheer magic, and I’m fully convinced that the deeper we dig into it, the more often we celebrate the process of reading committedly along with our students, the greater the positive transformations we observe as teachers will be.

 

New Year Classroom Resolutions

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It’s a new year in Room 310. And since I just got married a couple weeks ago, it also means a new name for me! One of my first challenges of the school year will be adjusting to my new moniker. It’s not going to be easy. In a profession where people have constantly addressed me by my last name for the past six years, it’s going to take some concentration to introduce myself correctly as Mrs. Casey. Some of my former students will be confused for a while, but it’s a happy confusion that I’ll enjoy celebrating with them. So, on to Year Seven! I have many goals in mind for the new year, but I’ll share my biggest 2015 classroom resolution here.

THE GOAL

This year, I’d like to grow my classroom borrowing library into a more impressive and useful one. Here’s my September 2015 “Before” shot, which shows the full extent of my current collection. It’s laughably small:

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BEFORE

THE REASON BEHIND THE GOAL

Last year, my department started making a major move to establish a reading culture at our school. And it worked. Students are, for the most part, increasingly willing–sometimes even eager!–to make independent reading a part of their weekly academic experience. One of the important aspects of encouraging students to read is making sure that books are visible and readily available. A fantastic way to do this is to host a classroom library. Several of my colleagues have already been taking this philosophy to heart for years, and have expansive, exciting, meticulously catalogued collections of books surrounding the full perimeter of their classrooms. It’s humbling and awesome. As you can see above, my library is downright paltry in comparison. If I really want to commit to helping my students grow as readers, this is something that I can do to get there.

THE METHODOLOGY

I’m going to work on obtaining books primarily through free or almost-free means. I plan to get the word out to my own social networks, asking for hand-me-downs that people have enjoyed but no longer wish to hang on to. Many people are avid readers who enjoy passing on titles that they’ve finished. I’ll also encourage my students and their families to donate gently-loved books for a little bit of extra credit. I’m also going to spend a bit of my own money (but not a dollar more than the $250.00 that educators can deduct on their taxes for classroom expenses) at places like Goodwill or Half Price Books to get some high interest titles. If grants or other donations are available, I can pursue those as well.

For managing this collection, I’ve downloaded a simple app for my phone called “Lend it!”. It’s an easy-to-use resource for keeping track of texts that have been lent out to students. By putting in their school e-mail addresses when they borrow a book from me, students will get an automatic reminder when their agreed upon “due date” is coming up. I’ll get reminders, too, and access to an evolving, current list of which kid has what. I’ve also labeled each of my books with a neon sticker that has a “C” on it (for Casey!), so that my books are easily distinguishable from those that come from other classroom collections.

I’m looking forward to taking my classroom library from flab… to fab! Watch for the “After” photo next June!

 

My Funny Valentine: Raising Awareness about Domestic Violence in the Language Arts Classroom

valentineThere are few traditions as sweet as the handmade valentine, but the process of making them is usually reserved for the elementary classroom. The teenagers that share the halls with me every day usually take their approach to love far more seriously–for many of them, their love relationship is a cornerstone of their young lives. But, for many of them, their vision of what love is, should be, or could be is still as simple and naive as that kindergarten valentine card. For all their rehearsed cynicism, young people are believers in love. But that doesn’t always mean they know how to handle it once it enters their lives.

They have much in common, then, with the protagonist from one of the texts I teach in my AP Literature and Composition class, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the book, young Janie forms an idea of love that, to me, is one of the purest and most beautiful in American literature:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom […] So this was a marriage!”

As the story moves forward, Janie soon learns that not all unions are as lovely as the example from nature that she seeks. She is forced into a loveless, arranged marriage with an elderly landowner as her grandmother hopes to protect her from poverty. In her compulsive need to escape this first marriage, Janie later runs away with the ambitious Joe Starks, who marries her in an attempt to make her into his “bell cow”–a beautiful business asset to accentuate the authority that he holds over the town of Eatonville during his many years as mayor. While the relationship begins sweetly, Joe’s need for control and his rage at any deviation from Janie bring their relationship to a dangerous, damaging place–he controls what she wears, who she may talk to, what she may say, what she does, and when she does it. She is beaten and verbally abused, and cannot pursue her desires freely until his death.

The moments of domestic violence and simmering, sustained power struggle described above are only one component of this complex and rewarding literary work. They would be very easy elements to address briefly and then gloss over while teaching. But knowing what I do about my own students’ lives and the blind faith they often place in love spurs me to talk quite a bit about domestic violence as we discuss the novel, and to call it by name.  We watch a TEDx talk from Leslie Morgan Steiner that identifies the warning signs and progressively dangerous cycle of domestic abuse in love relationships. We talk about Janie’s reasons for complying with Joe’s wishes, even though it is clearly not what she wants. And, right around February 14th, we also make what I call “honest valentines,” as you can see in the picture above. My simple directions are found below.

 AN HONEST VALENTINE, FROM JANIE

1. Spend some time talking with a small group about the various discoveries that Janie has made about love in her journey so far. Make a list. They can be positive, negative, broad, or specific.

2. Select one of the discoveries off of the list to work with. Find and mark two direct quotations that support this discovery.

3. Draw a valentine. Decide if Janie will give it to Logan, to Jody, to Tea Cake, or to herself.

4. Put a statement on the valentine that sums up the truth about love that she has discovered. Incorporate the quotations you’ve marked into your design as well.

This activity is always an interesting one for my students. For as much as they talk about love in their daily conversations, they are rarely encouraged to step back and think about love: What is it? When is it real? What happens when it is broken or dangerous? As I look over their creations, it reminds me that studying literature really is important. One of the main reasons it is important is this: it allows students to live other lives, to confront difficult ideas without having the often-painful life experiences that are otherwise required to do so. Literature gives students the freedom to talk about the hard parts of life though the experiences of characters, where it’s not personal, but rather a conceptual process of coming to understanding.  Reading literature gives students (dare I say?) wisdom. As an educator who cares deeply about their futures, I suppose I also put faith in the hope that some of these stories might provide them with a protective sense of déjà vu from the “lives” they’ve lived within the pages, leading them to a future where they have a better shot at feeling confident, safe, and whole.

Literature isn’t the only pathway to addressing the important topic of domestic violence in the language arts classroom, though. In fact, one of my longtime friends and colleagues, Mr. Jamie Spagnolo, has been getting some great press for a community PSA project that he created with his students from Prentice, Wisconsin. Here are his own words about the origins and outcomes of the project, which he agreed to share here:

[The coordinator of a local domestic abuse shelter and I] talked about the possibility of her coming into the classroom to speak with the kids about domestic abuse. Blending [her] desire to perform outreach in the classroom with her connections to local media and my desire to create a unit that involves research about issues that impact American teens, we got the ball rolling. A local radio station asked us if we’d create short PSAs for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month (February), and I felt that it would really be a great project that I could get behind academically and ethically.

Creating short persuasive/informative PSAs on the topic of teen dating violence was a great way to introduce the students to rhetoric and, in particular, audience. While the overarching target audience is teens, there were sub-audiences that required different approaches (victims, abusers, or bystanders). This kept the project from becoming an anything goes free-for-all, while at the same time allowing for a variety of approaches. We did a fair amount of research, analyzed the credibility of sources, talked about how to cite sources in a verbal medium, discussed how best to present statistics (Do you use “one in three” or do you go with “33%” or “9.3 million”? Which will be most effective for this particular situation?), and studied what approaches would appeal to or alienate particular sub-audiences.

The project opened some eyes with the kids. Ms. Steinbach and I have talked about how this project isn’t necessarily to reach teens who might be listening to the radio. Sure, if it connects to any of them, great; but the real target audience and the audience that it’ll have the most impact with is the kids who are making the PSAs. Every junior in our community walked away from this project more aware of a very serious issue, and they all now know how they can safely get help for themselves or for a friend. Additionally, some of the students who may have been exhibiting abusive behaviors in their relationships might now be aware of their own actions. They walk away with some pretty serious empowerment.

[You can listen to sample PSA’s from Mr. Spagnolo’s classroom here.]

When the teaching of skills and content intersects with helping our communities, it’s a reminder about why we teach in the first place. Teachers have power to impact students’ ideas about their own lives. Regardless of the methodology we choose to do so, let’s keep using that power for good.

 

The Year of the Reader: a few more small ways to shape and share your reading life

Back in September, I wrote about my school’s goal to build a better reading culture. For me, this has prompted an important transformation in my classroom, but also in my personal reading life. As I’ve been faced with what to say to my students who complain that they “just don’t have the time to read,” I’ve heard all-too-familiar echoes of my own reading mindset. Glancing sheepishly at the ever-mounting pile of books I’ve been meaning to read (some of them for years), I knew I was going to need to step up my own reading game if I wanted to help students become more regular readers. We all have more time than we think. So I gave it a go. More reading. More plans for what to read next. And, crucially, more publicity about my reading life with my students.

It’s the ripple effect of that last thing that has really made me hungry for more reading. Every time I finish a book, I tell my students about it. And then, like magic, they want to read it. And then they do. And then they talk to me about it and pass it on and more students read it. It still blows my mind that the simple fact that I personally enjoyed a book makes students pick it up. But it makes sense when you think about it–young adults are thirsty for the knowledge of “what’s good?” They are hitting the point in their lives where they are cultivating taste–for music, for style, for art… and for reading, if we catch them fast enough and care hard enough about the fact that they do. Young adults want to see what older adults see, and experience the things they experience. What better way for us to indirectly offer our insight than through the shared experience of reading a book?

Ruminations aside, here are some quick tips for keeping the fire of reading aglow in your classroom.

* You are the master reader. You must show others how to make time to read! I find the time mainly while I’m waiting for things. In the age where every man, woman,and child mindlessly scrolls their SmartPhones every moment they are waiting for an appointment, a meal, a flight, an oil change, a prescription, a person, or really anything at all, it’s easy to forget how much of that time could be spent with a book. I try to carry whatever book I’m reading with me, or have it in the car at the very least, so I can spend my life’s idle 20 minute spurts absorbed in the written word. I also read with my students in class all the time, every single week. It’s important to make, and use, the time. Students notice, and will do the same if you are vocal about it.

*Make your reading recommendations public and visible–set up some ads on your chalkboard or whiteboard and watch the books disappear like magic! My colleague Mr. B keeps a giant version of his “next list” with titles and authors up on the chalkboard and checks them off as he goes. My version of peddling my recent reads to the masses is simply putting a book up on my chalkboard ledge, and then drawing a big, catchy slogan for it. Something like this:

 

Sometimes I put up three new ones in a single day. I just leave the ad up there until a student grabs it… and one always does!

*Use Goodreads to share reviews on social media. You can always simply share what you’re reading verbally… I’ve been trying to start more conversations both inside and outside the classroom that start with “What have you been reading lately?” You learn so much about other people and their perspectives through sharing impressions of books, and you get to share a lot about who you are at the same time. This is why I like Goodreads, and recommend it as an extension of those conversations. Yes, writing a review does take more of that elusive time, but it’s a way to share your reading experience with others that has potential to interest, inspire, and invite them to share as well.  Here’s what the top of my Goodreads “My Books” page looks like…

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(If you’re a Goodreads member, come friend me–my username is “Ms. H.” with the pink bromeliad icon!) I like that my students and friends can look back at my whole reading history, and I can do the same with them, getting an idea of their tastes, browsing for things that I might like, and seeing what they thought of each title. It’s just one more way to spread the reading love.

Happy New Year one and all! One of my goals for 2015 is to keep reading more. I’m off to a good start–every book I got for Christmas is already finished. I can’t wait to get back to school to ask my students what they read over winter break. 🙂

Establishing a Reading Culture, Penny Kittle Style

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Here are some questions:

How do you get teenagers to read… I mean actually read? If students in high school don’t read at all, is it already too late for them to engage in a lifetime of learning? And if these students continually, halfheartedly fake their way through classroom texts, how will they have even a prayer of being ready for the demanding reading requirements of college?

These are the questions that bothered New Hampshire teacher and professional development expert Penny Kittle. Not so coincidentally–for they are the concerns of teachers everywhere–these questions have also been bothering the teachers in my own department. We’ve come up against so much student resistance to reading tasks, even simple ones, that it’s hard not to feel frustrated and confused. For this reason, we’ve decided to make this year about establishing a serious reading culture at our school. Thankfully, we’ve had much wisdom and strategy support in the form of Kittle’s resource-rich title Book Love: Developing depth, stamina, and passion in adolescent readers

I can’t stress enough that teachers should read and consider Book Love in its entirety. There’s too much great stuff in there for me to recap here, but I’d like to share a couple key components that my own school has incorporated in hopes of overhauling our reading culture. Kittle’s methods don’t just sound great on paper–they are clearly and actually working. Even in the short several weeks of school we’ve had so far, the change is perceptible and positive.

6 Steps to Take to Establish a Reading Culture

1. Get the right book into the right kid’s hands. Kittle is a staunch believer in the idea that all students want to read, if they only can find the right book. In my own adoption of this attitude, I’ve experienced a shift in my interactions with students. I’m more persistent and more diligent when it comes to making reading recommendations to reluctant readers. And it is paying off–when students understand that you care enough to work hard to get a book in their hands, the likelihood of them reading it goes up. Our whole department has begun giving book talks at least once a week in every communications class–taking time to preview great titles gives students more chances to find the book that will make all the difference. We each have classroom libraries (mine is pretty tiny, but it’s there!) of titles just waiting to be picked up by a student. I’ve also been very direct with students in selling the idea that “hating reading” is a virtual impossibility. It’s just that they hate what they are reading. Below, you’ll see a presentation I used in class that mirrors this idea–our message to all students is “You are all readers… you may just not know it yet.” That message resonates. Kids respond when teachers demonstrate aggressive faith in them.

2. Make reading about relationships. The quality of teaching, according to Kittle, is only as good as our relationships with our students (35). I have often embraced this mindset with my teaching of writing, but consciously making reading about relationships is something that I haven’t actively tried to do as a teacher for quite a while. Our department is taking a cue from Book Love as we bring in reading conferences as a way of not only keeping students accountable, but also becoming active mentors in their reading lives. In conferences, we question, recommend, and provide challenge for student readers. Kittle outlines an entire process and rationale for a couple different types of conferencing (77-90). My own variation on the reading conference, or “interview” as I call it, is structured for a once-a-quarter conversation with students. Click here to view and use it!

3. Celebrate and privilege reading as an important activity. We are making our reading more visible, through images and actions. This year, each classroom has some type of visual display that grows as students finish more titles. Some classes are even competing with each other. Seeing the row of paper book spines slowly extend down the hallway is a way for us to visually assert the importance of reading in our wing of the school. We’ve also created display cases with personal book recommendations. (The images included at the top of this post are seen in those display cases.) We’re making an effort to be vocal and visible with our reading lives, reading alongside with our students during class time that we set aside for reading. Some teachers start with ten minutes of reading each and every day, others set aside 20-30 minutes once or twice a week. If we truly value reading, we have to be able to reserve some class time to simply stop the world and read.

4. It’s about volume. A large part of Kittle’s argument for reading is that quantity does, in a sense, trump quality… at least at first. We all understand the idea that students naturally gain skill in reading the more that they do it, yet we often get trapped in this idea that students “should” be reading “great” books. Rather, Kittle says, we should be focusing on building stamina by helping students read more than ever before. This is especially important when we consider the 100-600 pages per week of the typical U.S. college reading requirement (20). With this in mind, we are challenging our students to see how much they can read, without being too worried about whether what they select is “worthy.” We’re trying to foster a reading addiction–why not allow students some titles that they can eat up voraciously before prompting them to tackle something tougher?

5. Help students track progress, make goals and set reading plans. Kittle says, “I once heard that a key difference between readers and nonreaders is readers have plans” (63). In order to help our students grow in their sophistication as readers, we have them track their titles and reading time, and also keep a running “next list” for books that they want to read in the future. We’ve helped students measure their reading rates, so that they can watch their speed increase over time. Reading needs to be purposeful, and getting a sense of how we are growing, and what we are growing towards, increases motivation. Our student readers are asked to look ahead to what’s next, fostering the expectation that tomorrow, or next week, or next year, we will still be reading.

6. Reading needs to be “what we do.” As a department, we’ve been vocal about encouraging teachers in disciplines other than communications to require students to read during downtime, to establish classroom libraries, to ask students about what they’re reading, and to recommend titles to students. The more our buy-in grows with staff, the more it does with students, and the closer we come to a true cultural shift, towards becoming a community of strong, constant readers.

This is just the starting phase of morphing into a reading-strong school. But I have to say… it’s a darn fine start. 🙂

How are you building a reading culture in your school? Share in the comments below!