All students need to read diverse books

“I’d never read a book on my own before this year. I didn’t really like reading. I just finished my 4th book of the year in Mr. Smith’s class, and I kinda like reading now.”

-one of my second period students speaking to another teacher on my hall

A culture of choice independent reading is ingrained into my classroom, from the extensive library of books on my shelves to the daily book talks that my students and I give to one another.  Students in my class get the first 10 minutes of every class to read from a book of their own choosing, and long story short, they read A TON more over the course of the year than their peers in neighboring classrooms.

I work in a Title I public school in which nearly 90% of the student population is either African-American or Latino, so my classroom library primarily contains books with authors and characters that look like my students.  My kids deserve to see themselves in the texts that they read.  My first period reading support class is currently reading All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds, a book that deals with the social injustices that exist for African-Americans in their interactions with law enforcement. My Language Arts classes are currently reading Monster by Walter Dean Myers, a novel that examines the prejudices that remain in the justice system and how that system works against people of color. I supplement these books with informational articles about relevant issues and people: Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Gardner, Stefon Clark, etc.

I have various students that are reading or have read The Hate U Give, Dear Martin, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  I’ve read these books as well and held small group discussions with my students that have enjoyed them, too.  These books deal with uncomfortable topics like white privilege and police brutality.  We talk about these things. I acknowledge to my students that I understand the number of benefits I enjoy in this country simply because I am a white man.  We lament how unfair that is and we talk about ways that we can make meaningful changes in regards to these shortcomings in our society.

My girlfriend teaches History at the elite private school in our town, and recently she learned that the 9th graders at her school were reading both The Hate U Give and Dear Martin.  Over 80% of her school is comprised of affluent white students, and that’s exactly who needs to be reading THESE books.  When my students read those aforementioned texts, they get angry and frustrated, probably because many of the issues in the books are realities for them and their families.  However, for these private school students, reading a book from the perspective of an African-American female teenager (The Hate U Give) is most likely a point of view that they have never considered.  Trying to understand what it’s like to be discriminated against for no reason other than the color of a person’s skin (Dear Martin) is a situation that your average white private schooler has not encountered before.

The fact that the students at my girlfriend’s school are reading these books is uplifting.  It gives me hope for the future. It makes me want to get these types of books in the hands of white high school students across the country as quickly as possible so that they can see and feel what it’s like to be a marginalized person in this country.  If we want to continuing progressing on Dr. King’s arc of the moral universe towards justice, then we must have discussions about social injustices in every school, and not just in the ones in which the students doing the talking are also members of the oppressed group.

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Experimenting with restorative justice

While my students were working in small groups on Thursday, two students in nearby groups got into a verbal altercation that sounded like it was getting heated quickly.  One of the students escalated things by telling the other student that he would “beat his ass”.

The first-year teacher version of myself would most likely not have known how to handle this situation, if for anything other than lack of experience. I might have acted like I didn’t hear what was said and moved closer to the students; or, I may have given both a verbal warning and left it at that.

The second-year teacher version of myself most likely would have removed the student that cursed from class immediately to quell the situation.  I probably wouldn’t have engaged in a dialogue with the punished student other than telling him which room he needed to go to in order to complete his assignment.

I will be done with my sixth year of teaching in a little over a month, and here is how I handled this particular situation:

I had both boys stop working and come into the hall with me.  I began by asking Gabriel, who was on the receiving end of the cursing, to explain to me what he said that got Phillip (the one who made the threat) so riled up.  He told me that he was joking around with another boy at Phillip’s table, and that he didn’t mean any harm by it. I pointed out to Gabriel that Phillip was clearly upset by what he had said.  Gabriel acknowledged the same and apologized to Phillip.

I then turned to Phillip and explained to him that his aggressive tone probably put Gabriel on the defensive.  Phillip agreed and promptly apologized to his classmate.  By the time I sent each of them back into class to finish working, they were both smiling (aside: I did tell Phillip before he re-entered class that the next time he curses like that I will be writing an office referral).  Crisis averted.

As I walked back into the room, I was visibly on cloud nine.  I have been listening to multiple podcasts lately dealing with restorative justice in schools, and I realized that I had just implemented a form of it in the hallway outside my classroom. By simply getting each student to consider the perspective of the other student, I facilitated an interaction between them that resulted in them calming down and squashing whatever beef had sprouted between them. Not only that, but each of them was able to save face in front of their classmates since the conversation occurred outside the room, and my relationship with each student instantly became a tiny bit stronger.

I’ve been trying to incorporate more meaningful socioemotional development into the lives of the students that I teach this year by getting them to consider the point of view of the people around them as well as how their actions might be impacting others.  Last week, it was my turn on the 7th grade hallway to host “silent lunch”, a punishment for students that continue to not meet classroom expectations after multiple warnings.  In the past, when I’ve had silent lunch in my room, I spread the 5 or 6 students out around the room and watched them like a hawk for the full 20 minutes.  If a student talked or made a disturbance, I would add another day of silent lunch.  However, the same students continued to be in silent lunch for the entire year, which means (A) it wasn’t a very effective consequence, and (B) the students weren’t learning anything to help them improve their behavior.

I decided to mix things up a bit last week in silent lunch.  I had all 6 students each day sit at the big table at the front of my room so that we could eat our lunch together, like a family.  I started off by asking each kid their favorite color and then their favorite desert in an attempt to discover what commonalities we shared. Then I moved onto the tougher questions: why are you here? Who was involved in your incident? How do you think they felt during the incident?  What can you do to improve if this incident potentially comes up again?

In short, the kids were confused, mainly because I wasn’t making them be silent. Also, I think they thought that I was looking to use the questions to corner them into a “gotcha” moment.  However, once they realized that we were more or less just analyzing each of their particular situations, they really opened up and responded honestly.  Will all of these kids stay out of silent lunch for the final 6 weeks of school?  Probably not.  However, I’m certain that they are now more conscious of the fact that their actions do impact others after considering the perspectives of the teachers and students involved in their episodes.

A teacher with 29 years of experience told me during my first year of teaching that teachers get 50% better at classroom management every year, and while I cannot prove it quantitatively, I kind of think he’s right.  As a Language Arts teacher, I’m constantly imploring my students to ponder the various perspectives of the characters in the books that we read; I’m just now learning that the same strategy can be used when reteaching expectations to our students as well.

Taking an optimistic mindset into Professional Learning days

I won’t see my students tomorrow because our district has a designated Professional Learning (PL) day.  I can already hear the collective groans from teachers everywhere.  A good number of teachers view PL as a waste of time; something that is taking away from the smorgasbord of tasks that teachers already have piled high on their plates.  However, in my current district, the PL has been phenomenal, and I have gotten a number of wonderful strategies and ideas that have really shifted how I teach Language Arts to my 7th graders, several of which are listed below.

Three years ago, a University of Georgia professor gave me a copy of Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller at a PL session.  That booked totally transformed how I teach reading to my students.  Before reading Miller’s text, my classes read four novels a year as a class (or one per unit), with everyone reading the same book.  Today, my kids are all reading different books of their own choice for the first 10 minutes of every class period.  Needless to say, my students are reading WAY more than before and they are learning to explore various genres of books on their own.  In addition, the majority of my students are forming a relationship with literacy that previously was not present.  We only have our students for a year, so it’s our job as teachers to help them make reading a lifelong habit, and that can only be done if students learn how to take ownership of their reading lives.

Another instructional strategy that I took away from a PL that I have found to be highly effective in helping students master the concept of argumentative writing is the CSET strategy.  This technique shows the students how to craft an argumentative paragraph that contains a claim (C), a set-up that shows where this information is coming from (S), a piece of evidence from the text (E) and a tie-in (T) sentence that shows how their evidence supports their claim.  The CSET strategy can initially be taught to the students using cartoons, Pixar Shorts or New York Times Op-Docs to help them understand the basic structure.  Then, I can begin giving them CSET assignments that require them to support a claim based upon either our class novel or an informational text.  Because this strategy only requires the students to produce an effective paragraph, it doesn’t seem as daunting to them at first. However, once they master how to create one strong paragraph, I can challenge them to create another one that argues the same viewpoint. Eventually, students can produce multiple CSETs, and they are able to craft a well-organized argumentative essay with several reasons that all support a claim with valid textual evidence.

A final strategy that I have been using a lot this year comes from the text Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies (Beers, Probst), and guess what? I gleaned it from a PL day. When my students read informational texts, instead of just assigning a question set for them to answer when they finish, this year I have been applying a Notice & Note strategy and I have really seen a difference in how my students engage with nonfiction texts.  Before reading the text, we have a whole class discussion about how when we read or hear something that surprises or shocks us, it’s because we are usually learning something new. Then, while my students read a news article, they label three things that surprised or shocked them.  Once they finish, they confer with a partner or small group and review what surprised or shocked everyone.  The discussions that manifest from this one question are phenomenal to observe, and the students interaction with the text is at a much deeper level.  When we come together as a class to recap their observations, our whole group discussions are filled with rich and astute comments. At the end of class, students will typically write a short response that highlights one thing from the text that truly shocked them and why.  This strategy has definitely enhanced my students’ ability to identify central ideas in informational texts as well as their ability to pull out key details from the text.

A final blessing that I have gotten from PLs in my district is a host of educational apps that I have used regularly in my ELA classes.  Our school is 1:1 with computers, so it is imperative that I attempt to engage my students with 21st century tasks.  I’ve had students create oral arguments using Flipgrid, Youtube, Voki and Screencastify.  I’ve reinforced grammar concepts using NoRedInk. I’ve introduced new material to students using Edpuzzle. All of our classwork is pushed out to students using Google Classroom.  My exit tickets are often are done electronically via Linoit.  All of these aforementioned apps were presented to me in different PL sessions.

It’s certainly possible that I have been lucky by being in a district that values PL and provides us with strategies and tools that we can immediately take to the classroom, and other teachers elsewhere have not been as fortunate.  However, I also think there is a likelihood that teachers may be guilty of approaching PL days with a less than optimistic outlook.  Or, it could be a combination of the two. Either way, my advice to teachers everywhere is to head into the PL days with the expectation that you are going to be given something that can be applied to your classes.  I know that’s going to be my mindset tomorrow morning.

Use Edpuzzle to enhance student engagement

I use Youtube a lot in my classroom, especially when I’m introducing new concepts.  It’s a great way to differentiate how I present content to students.  I’m a realist. I understand that a Youtube video at times is more interesting to my students than the sound of my voice.  Especially when we are examining some of the less exciting 7th grade state standards: sentence types, coordinate adjectives and misplaced and dangling modifiers.  A lecture on any of those aforementioned topics is not going garner the attention of my students for an incredibly long period of time.

Shmoop makes A LOT of highly-engaging educational videos.  Shmoop’s content is witty, fast-paced and full of attractive graphics.  I’ve used a number of Shmoop videos over the years to pique my students interest into a mini lesson focused on grammar, which is probably your average 7th grader’s least favorite segment of English Language Arts.

However, I’ve noticed this year that while my students appear to be watching the videos that I show them in class, I’m not sure that they are learning from them. Our students today go to the internet for the majority of their entertainment needs. They use Youtube to watch television shows, movies, sports highlights and recorded video game sessions.  While learning from a Youtube video may seem like a novel idea to a Generation Xer like myself, I’m starting to wonder if these videos are starting become white noise to some of my students.  If that is the case, that’s a problem.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Enter Edpuzzle, a free educational technology company that allows teachers to customize videos and tailor them towards their students.  I feel it’s important at this point to mention that I currently work in a district that is one-to-one with technology, meaning that every student that I teach is issued a laptop computer from the district that they can use for the school year.  If I worked in a district where computers were harder to come by, then Edpuzzle may not be practical.  However, if it’s not difficult for you to get computers into the hands of your students, then you must give this website a try the next time you want to show a video that introduces content in your class.

Edpuzzle allows teachers to create assignments for their students using videos from sites like Youtube.  Once a teacher decides upon a video that they want to use in class, they can upload it to Edpuzzle, and then embed multiple choice questions, short response questions or a combination of both inside the video.  These questions make the instructional videos highly interactive for students.  My kids have to pay attention to the content because they are being asked questions as they watch, and they know that I will be grading their responses (actually, Edpuzzle grades them for you if they are multiple choice).

Not only does using Edpuzzle put more of the responsibility of learning on the students, but it also serves to enhance retention.  Rather than just consuming a video, students using Edpuzzle must process the information.  If I watch a 4 to 5 minute video covering a new concept, I’m most likely not going to remember much more than a few details.  However, if I’m forced to respond to questions throughout, some of which require me to type out my thoughts, I’m definitely going to recall more of what was shown to me.  Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen a uptick in classroom participation after my students have viewed an Edpuzzle video.  Last week, I had kids in each of my classes that never raise their hands telling their classmates the differences between independent and dependent clauses.  Had I simply just shown that same video to my students on the overhead, I’m positive that those students would not have participated in those discussions.

This week I’m using some of my mini lessons to cover coordinate adjectives. I know, I know, thrilling stuff. However, we are just two weeks away from the end of the year assessments, and I like to save the last few weeks before them to cover some of the more mundane standards, so that I can use the rest of the school year to read books, talk about books and write about books.

Anyhow, here’s the video I’ll be using.  Feel free to check it out. I did not create the video; I simply pulled it into Edpuzzle and put some questions into it.  I’m hopeful that it will serve as a helpful introduction into this topic for my students on Monday.

 

Trying something new in the classroom

My students and I have been co-constructing a lot of our writing lately.  Essentially, I act as a facilitator, and the students brainstorm out loud and tell me what to type on the whiteboard.  So far, we’ve co-constructed multiple reading response paragraphs, an essay arguing for later school start times, and as of this week, a narrative. Up to this point, we’ve been embarking upon our co-construction as a whole group.  For the most part, it’s been a success.  Sure, only about half the kids in each class offer up ideas and sentences for me to type, but I know that the others are benefiting from hearing their peers and seeing how their thoughts transform into written words.

This week, however, I wanted to put more of the onus of the co-construction on my students.  On Thursday, we read “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. For anyone who’s never read it, here’s the basic plot: a man kills the old man he is taking care of, hides the body in the floorboards and eventually confesses to the police when he becomes so overridden with a combination of paranoia and guilt that he “hears” the dead man’s heart in his head.

The prompt I gave my kids: Rewrite the ending of the story from the point of view of one of the police officers. 

As a class, we broke this section of the story down into three main events:

  1. The police arrive at the house of the victim.
  2. The suspect shows them around the house.
  3. The suspect confesses to the police.

Then I split the students up into groups, and each group was assigned a portion of the story to write. This was my first time letting go of the reigns in regards to the co-construction process. Was I nervous? Sure.  My biggest fear was that students wouldn’t agree on how to move the narrative along since this task did require a certain level of creativity on their part.  I thought that some groups would struggle to produce.

I was completely wrong. Not only were the kids highly-engaged in the assignment, but they did an amazing idea of working together and sharing ideas. The narratives that they produced contained descriptive language, sensory details and small amounts of dialogue. At the end of the class, a member from each group came to the front of the room to read their portion, and sequentially we heard the entire story that my students had created.  This could not have gone better.

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Co-construction in regards to writing is something that I have just started doing with my students this year.  To be clear, co-constructive writing is not something that I came up with on my own; I learned of it during a professional learning day at my school.  The key, however, is that this tool did not stay in our training room.  I took the concept and tried it in the classroom, despite my fears of whether it would work or not with my students.

As teachers, we must be willing to try new things in our classrooms even if it takes us out of our comfort zones.  Our students are dynamic, and we must be, too.  We regularly ask our students to try new things: genres of books, writing styles and educational apps. We put them in groups with people they may not know that well and expect them to discuss concepts from our class. When our cafeteria serves hummus, I encourage my students to try it.  If I’m going to ask them to try all these new things, then I have to be willing to take risks as well when it comes to planning lessons and activities for our classroom.

Will trying new things always work out well?  Of course not.  Sometimes, lessons are going to flop. The first time I had my students read in pairs 6 years ago, it was a disaster. I didn’t group them strategically.  I didn’t model what I expected paired reading to look like, so my students had no idea for how long they were supposed to read before they switched; they also didn’t know what their role was while their partner was reading.

When my students read in pairs now, it runs smoothly and the kids have engaging discussions with their partners while they read. This transformation did not occur magically.  I reflected on why my initial attempts at pair reading failed, and I researched ways to improve. But none of these changes would have ever occurred if I hadn’t taken a gamble and attempted to do something in my class in a new way.

Teachers owe it to their students to continuously find ways to keep the content fresh, and we must be willing to take risks in our classrooms from time to time for the kids’ benefit.

 

 

The power of a positive phone call

This week my students wrote an essay in which they argued that they should be allowed to chew gum in school.  They had to pull evidence from a pair of articles that I provided from CNN and The Guardian.  Argument writing has been our focus this quarter, and with the quarter winding down, I wanted to see how well they could craft an argument on their own.

One student in particular did a phenomenal job of creating a well-organized essay, which is such an accomplishment for her because she entered my 7th grade class reading at a 3rd grade level. For her to be able to complete this task is nothing short of huge. I had to pass this information along to her mother.  Here is a transcript of our conversation:

Me: I wanted to let you know how proud I am of Nakia for her work on her argumentative essay this week.  She worked really hard, and she put together a great piece of writing that used several pieces of strong supporting evidence that supported her claim.

Parent: Uh-huh.

Me: I’m just so proud of how much growth she has shown this year as both a reader and writer.

Parent: So…this is a good call?

Me: Yes!  Definitely a good call.

Parent: Oh, that’s so nice to hear! I thought maybe she hadn’t gotten something done in class.

Me: No, no, no. She’s doing fine.

Parent: That’s really nice to hear.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not uncommon.  I try my best to call home whenever students reach milestones in my class, whether they finish a book, write an amazing essay or just improve upon their behavior.  For the most part, these calls are met with uncertainty because the parents at my school generally assume that if they are getting a call from the school, their child has done something wrong.

Now, I make my fair share of parent phone calls home when my students aren’t meeting my expectations, either academically or behaviorally. I’m sure, like most teachers, I make way more phone calls home of this variety.  The student that disrupts the learning environment in my room is going to get a call home that day; the other twenty-something kids who come to class and attempt to do everything I ask of them will not.  Obviously, there’s not enough time in the day to call all of our student’s parents regularly to discuss positives or negatives.  It just isn’t happening. But we must make time to have those positive discussions with parents when their children are succeeding at school.  Here’s why:

Positive phone calls build currency with students

Teaching is all about relationships. Teachers that have strong relationships with their students are going to have classes where those students are engaged and ready to take the academic risks that are necessary for true learning to occur.  Making a good call home for a student when it is warranted is an important step in cultivating that teacher-student relationship.  It rewards the student for his or her accomplishment, and it shows the student that you value that accomplishment so much that you wanted to share the good news with someone at home.  Students will work hard for that sort of praise.  Plus, a teacher that makes a positive phone call home for a student now has currency that he or she can use when they might have to make a phone call home to discuss a transgression.  Students, like their parents, naturally presume that a call home means that they’ve done something wrong.  When a student knows that his or her teacher calls home to discuss both the good and the bad, that student will see that their teacher is invested in them.

Positive phone calls improve parent-teacher relationships

Being a parent of a student who struggles at school has to be difficult.  Getting phone calls to discuss poor grades or behavioral shortcomings cannot be easy.  As teachers, we all have those students that are regularly not meeting the expectations of our classroom, and if you are like me, you spend a decent amount of time on the phone with those parents. I believe it’s critical to make parents aware of what their child is doing in my class when that child is not performing well.  If I were the parent of that child, I’d want to know.  However, having these discussions is not a simple process because emotions are involved.  Whenever I call home to let a parent know that his or her child had a slip-up behaviorally or academically, I am cognizant of the fact that I am speaking to someone who loves this student for better or worse.

However, when I make a genuine positive phone call home for those same struggling students, it begins to change the narrative of my relationship with that parent. They see that I am not just another teacher that focuses on all of the negative attributes of their child. Those positive phone calls show those parents that I celebrate the positive contributions that their child is making to the class as well, and that communication can be transformative.  The parent sees that I am observing their child fairly.  They know that I care about their child’s well-being.  It’s a big step in fostering a relationship with that parent that says to their child that the parent and I are on the same team.

Getting students talking more about what they are reading

I struggle to get all of my classes engaged in discussions that are centered around the novels that we read in class. Some classes are more chatty than others. Within those classes, the same group of kids regularly provide responses to the questions that I ask while we read. Talking about what we read is powerful. It helps us gain a deeper comprehension of the text while also providing us with other perspectives concerning the issues within the book. I need to get all of my students talking about what they read as they read so that they become better readers, even the shy ones.  Plus, it makes reading a lot more fun when it’s a shared experience!

I found this gem on Pinterest this week:

partner read questions

I put it up on the overhead and modeled for students how to use the prompts after we finished a page during our read aloud.  After I read another page, multiple hands shot up.  By the time we completed our third page, more than half of my students had a comment using one of the prompts listed on the chart.  And this was in my 1st period reading class, which is comprised of students who need additional reading support because they are still comprehending below grade level.  I was blown away by how much the level of engagement in our class discussion increased simply by giving the kids these prompts to begin their responses with.

When class ended, I immediately made twenty-something copies of the handout and had the media center specialist laminate them.  This is the teacher equivalent to changing a relationship status on Facebook, except in this case it’s taking something paper and giving it a protective plastic coating that will prolong its lifespan.  Let’s examine the parts of this tool and focus on why it’s so perfect for students when reading:

  • I’m thinking“, “I’m noticing“, “I’m wondering” and “I can’t believe” all give students the chance to quickly reflect on what they have just read.
  • This part reminds me of” allows students to connect what they are reading to something from their own lives or the real world.  These types of connections are essential in helping students better understand a text because it improves their ability to make inferences about what the characters are saying and doing simply by having that related background knowledge.
  • This is confusing because” and “Why” might be my favorites because they encourage students to think critically about what they have just read.  They may question a character’s motives or an author’s decision to reveal certain information at this point in the novel.
  • I like this part because” provides students with the practice of making a claim or statement and supporting it with evidence from the text.
  • I think the character is feeling _____ because” forces the students to make inferences based on a character’s actions or words, and they have to support that inference with evidence from the text.
  • I think _____ will happen next” gives students a chance to make predictions as to what they think will happen based upon what they have read thus far. Making predictions is one of the top indicators of an informed and engaged reader.
  • In all honesty, we haven’t gotten to the last square yet, and I don’t have a “retelling bookmark“, so this might remain untouched by my classes.  I can live with that.

The day after our read aloud, I put all of my students in all of my classes in pairs, and I gave each pair a laminated copy of the “Ways we can partner talk” card.  One student would read a page from our novel, and when he or she finished, each kid said something about what they just read using one of the prompts on the card, then the other student read and the process repeated itself again and again.  Just thinking back on these classes has me giddy! I couldn’t believe all of the incredibly rich and wonderful discussions going on around the classroom between all of the different pairs of students.  My euphoria during the moment when the reading and discussing was going on was quickly met with regret that I hadn’t discovered this tool earlier in the year.  There’s always next year, though, and I will definitely be implementing this card into my classes sometime around the first week of school.