This week: The Hate U Give, changing mindsets and emojis

I know I’m late to the game, but I recently began The Hate U Give  by Angie Thomas.  My inspiration for beginning this book actually came from one of my students, Demetria, who is quite the avid reader.  Already this year, she’s read The Skin I’m In, Dear Martin, Long Way Down and All-American Boys.  I thought it would be fun to read some of Thomas’s book so that I could ask Demetria questions about it during our independent reading time.  I got hooked into the book early on though, and now we are sort of reading it together (she comes into homeroom each morning and opens my bookmark to see how far I’ve read).  It’s a healthy competition, and it’s giving us a lot to discuss.download

Anyhow, at the start of the book, the main character, Starr, is in the car with her friend Khalil when they get pulled over by the police as Khalil is driving her home from a party.  The incident gets out of hand and the cop shoots Khalil three times in the back, and Starr watches her friend bleed to death on the street. The book centers around this act of violence, and the over-policing of African-Americans is one of the novel’s central themes.  Though the scene where Khalil is killed is only a few pages, it is full of sensory details that paint a vivid picture of this gruesome image.  So of course I had to read it aloud to all of my classes.

Anyone who has ever taught middle school knows that they are truly elementary school students in overgrown bodies.  In all four of my Language Arts classes, students protested, “Don’t stop! Keep reading!” when I got to the end of the excerpt.  Nearly 90% of my students are African-American and/or Latino, so many of them had experienced or knew family members and friends who had experienced negative interactions with law enforcement. Most of my students admitted to having “the talk” with a parent or grandparent previously about how they should speak to police officers if they are ever stopped and questioned. I confessed to my students that I had never had such a talk with my parents, and that just the week before I was pulled over for speeding and let off with just a warning, to which they hollered, “Because you’re white!”.

In addition to Demetria, three other students hustled to the library to check out this book.  It’s amazing how powerful our influence can be over students and what they read when we provide them with dramatic readings from engaging texts.  Book talks are such an easy yet effective way to hook students into a text. When I read the first chapter aloud from Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds, I immediately had five students reading the book during our independent reading time.  The same thing happened when I read from How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon.

My heartwarming moments of the week

This week I had two separate interactions with students that made me feel overwhelmingly satisfied with my position in this world as a teacher.  The first occurred on Wednesday when Saul, a student who professed early on in the year to me how much he disliked school, stopped by my room in the morning on his way to homeroom to ask if he was going to get to read his book, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, at the beginning of class.  Recently, I shifted my classes’ independent reading schedule.  I used to reserve two to three days each week for the students to read from books of their own choosing in the work session, which would mean a 15 to 20 minute block of time.  However, that schedule was resulting in too many weeks where we only read independently for just two days, so I moved it to the first 10 minutes of every class, every day, and it’s been amazing.  I suppose some of the kids haven’t fully-grasped that this is how class is going to start each day since Saul seemed a bit unsure, but the fact that he is entering the building wanting to read something is an immeasurable leap from the beginning of the school year.

My other newly converted reader, Sanchez, read Long Way Down before the holiday break, and he sort of became obsessed with it, but in a good way.  He particularly enjoyed how the book was written in verse, so I tried giving him The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, but for whatever reason he wasn’t feeling it.  I offered him House Arrest by K.A. Holt, and he sunk his teeth into it.  He read it at the start of every class period this week, and on Friday he came up to me in homeroom to let me know that he read thirty-something pages at home the night before.  His confession stopped me in my tracks. This is a kid who repeatedly claimed to “hate reading” from the first day of school.  By the end of this upcoming week, he’ll have finished his second novel this year completely on his own. I’m not totally sure how these transformations occur, but they are marvelous to observe from where I’m standing.

Using emojis to make inferences and cite details

While I absolutely love reading through my students’ journal entries, I do occasionally feel guilty about having them write a journal response before we read, and then having them write responses to a reading prompt after we read.  Maybe I’m becoming a softy.  Anyhow, recently I’ve started having them draw emoji(s) at the end of class that represent their thoughts and downloadfeelings regarding something that they read, either from our class novel or their own books.  Then, they have to go around the room and explain their emoji(s) to at least two other students.  This activity has been a big hit so far because (A) it’s fun to draw emojis, (B) 7th graders love any opportunity to get out of their seats and talk with their peers, and (C) I think the kids appreciate the break from the writing.

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This week in my classes: journal writing, role-playing and finishing books

Journal writing

Since returning to school in the new year, my classes have been doing more journal writing than we were doing during the first half of the year.  Both the books that my students are reading – The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake and After Ever After by Jordan Sonnenblick – pair up well with engaging writing prompts for 13-year-olds.  I’ve been reading through all of my kids’ journals the past few weekends, and though this task is time-consuming, I’m finding that I thoroughly enjoy reading their entries for the window it provides me with into their lives.  Their journal entries offer me conversation starters that I can use with students in the halls between classes, and they are helping me deepen my relationships with them.

Last week, the kids responded to the following prompt:

“Think about a difficult conversation that you’ve had in the past.  What was it about and how did you feel afterwards?”

I was shocked to learn how many of my students have lost parents and other loved ones. Some have seen parents and relatives go to jail. Others have been or still are facing bullying on a regular basis.

Several of the students that wrote that they had experienced some of those issues above can be a challenge in the classroom in regards to behavior, but at least now I might have an idea as to why that’s the case.  I have somewhere that I can start from in regards to helping those kids figure out how they fit into our classroom dynamic.

Hot spot activity

I stole another activity off Twitter that I tried this week that’s called “hot spot“. Here is how it worked: after reading aloud to the class from a novel for roughly 10 minutes, I stopped and chose a student to “become” one of the characters from our book.  That student had to get into the mindset of that character and view the world as only he or she would.  Then, other students could raise their hands to ask that person questions from what we have read so far. What an amazing way to examine character motivation!  The questions that the kids asked were brilliant, and nearly all of them pertained to some specific event from the text. It was a completely student-led discussion over our class novel; I just sat back and observed as my students peppered the student doing the role-playing with questions.  I would highly recommend this activity to anyone looking to spice up classroom book discussions.

Friday is for finishing books

Several more students finished books on Friday that they had been reading in my class for the past several weeks now.  Another girl completed Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on Friday, and like every student that I teach that has read that book, she was upset by the lack of closure at the end and definitely thinks that Reynolds has to write a sequel.

A boy in one of my advanced classes just wrapped up The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.  This is the second book he’s read to completion on his own in my class this year (his first book was Bull by David Elliott).  This year is the first year that I’ve had an advanced Language Arts class, and I’ve definitely noticed that those students appreciate the time in class for independent reading as much as my other Language Arts classes. Unfortunately, I fear that some teachers assume that just because students are advanced that they are automatically devouring books at home in their free time, but that is not the case.  These kids enjoy video games and social media just as much as the next 13-year-old. They too need some structured time set aside in school each day where they can read for pleasure without any of the distractions that modern technology offers teens today.

Jason Reynolds interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show”

This clip should be required viewing for middle and high school English Language Arts students and teachers everywhere.

The first 10 minutes of class

I realize how cliché this statement sounds, but I’m trying to write more this year about my classroom experiences.  I know that writing more will improve my writing, which is an obvious plus.  And I’m an English Language Arts teacher, so I should be practicing what I preach and writing on a semi-regular basis.  But more importantly, I don’t want to forget all the wonderful things that go on inside my classroom daily, and this seems like a decent way of preventing that from happening.  So without further adieu, here are my highlights thus far from 2018:

The first 10 minutes

I’m a firm believer that students need time in class to read books of their own choosing.  I’ve been implementing this approach to literacy for over 3 years now, basically from the moment I finished reading The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller.  For the past two years (and half of this year), I’ve always blocked out several work sessions a week to allow the students 15 to 20 minutes of unobstructed time to read a self-selected book.  The problem that I’ve wrestled with for some time, though, is that there is never enough time to do all the things that I need to do with the kids.  They can’t just read their own books; we have to have mentor texts that we can use together so that the students can work in small groups to practice all the skills that go along with being a good reader (making inferences, learning new vocabulary, recognizing and understanding point of view, explaining how setting affects both the characters and the plot, conflict, etc., etc., etc.).  If I give them two to three days a week to read their own books, then that only leaves a couple of days to work on all those aforementioned skills. Oh, and I have to teach them how to write the following genres: narrative, explanatory and argumentative.  There just isn’t enough time. I always feel like I’m taking away from something else, and that makes me feel guilty as hell as their teacher.

This week, though, I stumbled upon a podcast called Teach Me, Teacher that offered me a solution to my aforementioned problem: read at the beginning of class.  In the first episode that I listened to, the host, Jacob Chastain, interviewed THE Donalyn Miller, and he divulged to her that he has his kids reading from their self-selected texts for the first 15 minutes of every class.  Chastain claimed that using this opening portion of the class actually helped him to reduce wasted time in his lessons because his students were on task as soon as they walked into the room. His class periods are slightly longer than mine, so I couldn’t reconcile using 15 minutes, but this week I started off all my classes with 10 minutes of independent reading time followed by a “Status of the Class” update and a short reading response in their journals.  Then we moved into whatever skill I wanted to cover that day using either a newspaper article or our class novel.

I’ve only been implementing this strategy for a week, but so far I am loving it.  The kids know that as soon as they come into the room they are to find the book that they are reading and get to their seat so that when I walk in they are ready to begin.  Historically, I had what we call a “Brain Crank” or “Warm Up” question on the board that the kids are supposed to answer when they come into my room.  Typically, this could be a quote from a book we are reading or something else that requires them to make an inference.  The problem, however, is that I teach 7th graders, and they get very little time to socialize throughout the day other than the two minutes when they are in the hall transitioning to their next class.  So when my students enter my room, they are not all going to be 100% committed to sitting down and starting my warm up question.  Inevitably, several students will not have even remembered to grab their composition notebooks on the way into class. Several more might have managed to get their notebooks, but by the time I enter the room they are still resting closed on their desks.  And generally anywhere from 3 to 10 kids are in need of a pencil, hence, the name of this blog.  By the time all of those issues get resolved, we’re a couple minutes into the lesson and my students are just now attempting to tackle the question.  Four to five minutes later, we go over their responses. All and all, this task can take anywhere from 6 to 9 minutes.

However, the process of getting a book and starting to read limits most of those roadblocks I mentioned above.  Plus, while the kids are reading, I can knock out all the little house-cleaning tasks that teachers have to go through before class can really begin: take attendance, hand out pencils, pass out handouts or articles, etc.  This also gives me a chance to jot down what titles everyone is reading and notice who’s sticking with a book and who’s giving up on what they read the day before (which means I know who I need to talk to ASAP).  I can already tell I am not wasting as much time as I was before when I had the warm up question routine.  My lessons are tighter and the kids are reading more on a daily basis.  Also, they are reading from multiple texts in one lesson period, which helps them to recognize the similarities and differences in content and style that exist across books.  One other perk of this new strategy is that having the students begin a class by reading independently is a great way to chill everybody out, and it sets everything up for a productive lesson.

Mini book club

I have about eight students now spread out amongst my five classes that have read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds on their own.  Each of them was frustrated with the ending.  They didn’t understand why the author didn’t provide them with a clear-cut solution that neatly wrapped the story up at the end.  As I alluded to above, middle school students do not have a lot of unstructured time, and nor do the teachers for that matter.  If I were a high school teacher, I wouldn’t have to eat lunch with my students, and I could host small groups to discuss the books that we were reading or that we had recently finished.  Alas, this is not the case for me, but I wanted to get these students together so that they could vent about the book in the same place.  So I snagged them one by one on Friday and brought them into my homeroom and let them go at it, which was awesome!  They all expressed their frustrations with the book’s conclusion, and then looked to me to provide them with some sort of comfort or solution to this transgression by Mr. Reynolds, to which I just shrugged my shoulders (which led to more arguing).  I want these little organic book discussions to happen more amongst my students who have read the same book, and I’m going to make a goal for 2018 to figure out how to make this happen on a more frequent basis.

Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament

Someone that I follow on Twitter last year posted that they hold “Rock, Paper, Scissors” tournaments in class to give their students a quick mental break, and I wish I could remember who that person was because I would gladly send them a gift card to their favorite restaurant.  This year, I’ve held regular tournaments in my class, and I have found them utterly delightful.  First off, they take no longer than 3 minutes to complete, assuming you don’t go best 2 out of 3 (even with twenty-something kids in the room).  Second, they get the kids out of their seats for a few minutes, which is always a bonus.  Lastly, they are a refreshing break from the content and they are absolutely hilarious.  I’ve yet to host a tournament that didn’t involve at least one kid that couldn’t seem to grasp that it’s “One, two, three – shoot!”, and after several failed attempts the entire class is usually in stitches.

I can’t wait to see what next week brings!