A teacher’s reflection on Hurricane Irma

This week in Athens, Georgia was not normal by any measure of standards.  At about 2:30pm on Monday afternoon, Hurricane Irma arrived and wreaked havoc upon the city’s trees and power lines.  Fortunately, my home remained untouched from falling limbs; others were not so lucky.  I did however lose power at about 5pm on Monday, and I did not get it back until nearly 8pm Thursday evening, the same day that we returned to school after three days off due to widespread power outages.

One’s entertainment options become quite limited once electricity is removed from the equation: no television, no wifi, no Netflix.  Especially if that person – in this case me – possesses a cell phone plan that comes with a modest amount of LTE data before exorbitant fees are applied.  For nearly three days, the only choice afforded to me in my home in regards to amusement was reading.

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston for the first time.  Somehow, I wasn’t assigned this text in high school, though in a way I feel blessed in this regard because I don’t think the 17-year-old version of myself would have appreciated this novel nearly as much as the 38-year-old person that I am today did.  Suddenly, the trials of being inconvenienced with using a headlamp to eat breakfast and keeping a cooler stocked with ice to prevent food spoilage paled in comparison with the plight of Janie Crawford in her lifelong quest to find true love.

Once I finished Hurston’s novel, I moved on to something lighter, a book called Blood Salt Water by Alex Morrow.  It’s a crime novel set in Scotland with the story being told through the eyes of a low-level gangster and the police officer that is trying to solve a homicide in which said gangster was involved.  I haven’t finished this book yet, probably due to the fact that my power came back on when I was still in the middle of it.  Instead of reading Thursday night, I spent my time watching Narcos and scanning through my Twitter feed for engaging lesson plan activities.

We live in an incredibly distracting world.  Televisions, computers, tablets and phones can make it nearly impossible to focus on just one task at a time.  I cannot imagine being a student in this era with so many potential diversions at our fingertips: social media, texting, email, games, etc.  When I was the same age that my students are today, I had a television and a Nintendo, both of which my parents could shut down with unbelievable ease.  If I was told to go to my room and read a book or do my homework, the only thing to do in my room was read or do homework.  I didn’t have a laptop or iPhone that I could use to watch just about anything my little heart desired.  Even today, I find myself at times struggling to read for extended period of times without unlocking my phone at least once. How difficult must this be for someone who is just 12 or 13 years old?

As I reflect on my experience from the past week in which reading was my primary activity throughout the day, I feel even more validated as a Language Arts teacher that carves out instruction time each week so that my students have a chance to just read.  The school year is young, and I’m still coaching my students through the process of independent reading from self-selected texts, but they are starting to get it.  The kids are exploring genres and learning that they do possess the reading stamina to get lost in a book for 15 to 20 minutes.  Through their written responses I can see that they are beginning to engage with the various characters and plot lines within their novels.

My students need time to learn to enjoy reading on a personal level, and after this week, I see that more than ever.  They need a chance to read without all the diversions that come along with today’s smartphones.  In addition to technological distractions, many of my students care for younger siblings from the time the bus drops them off at home to when they go to bed.  Most of them do not have access to rich and engaging texts in the house, and a lot of my students are not witnessing adults in their home model reading as something one does for pleasure.

As teachers, it’s our job to give our students these types of opportunities.  We cannot assume that students are getting the chance to read much on their own outside of school, and if you work at a Title I school like mine, you almost have to assume that they are not.      Our classroom should be a place where students can frequently experience the choice of reading something that aligns to their interests.

I’m not saying that we have to remove electricity and technology from the equation altogether, but we should give our students a chance to unplug and focus on just one thing at a time, especially reading.

 

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Discussing race in the classroom

My 7th graders have begun the year with a focus on narrative writing as a way of easing them into the writing process.  They have a much easier time writing about themselves as opposed to argumentative writing where they have to formulate a thesis and support it with reasons and textual evidence.  As a teacher, I much prefer to start the year with narrative because it gives the kids a chance to feel successful early in regards to their writing, and let’s be honest, most 12 and 13-year-olds are not going to be found picketing outside of schools demanding that MORE writing be implemented into the curriculum.

On Thursday of this week, I used a StoryCorps episode called “Traffic Stop” to show my students that even though the story is spoken, it still contains all the major elements of a powerful narrative: entertaining beginning, critical character, setting, suspense, conflict, resolution and theme.  In this episode, Alex Landau speaks about his experience in 2009 of being severely beaten by several white cops in a suburb of Denver, Colorado.  The reason that Landau was beaten to within an inch of his life: he asked the policemen if they had a warrant.  Landau, who grew up with his adoptive white parents, said that this incident completely changed his perspective on how the world viewed him, and needless to say, it certainly left him fractured both inside and out.

TRAFFIC_Title_Card-636x358After we listened to Alex’s story, I had each of my classes identify all of the narrative elements in his story.  When we got to “resolution”, a hand shot up and a student said, “There kind of wasn’t a resolution.”

I’m a white teacher working in a middle school with a student body that is just 12% white.  I’m reminded of this fact every day when I look out at my students and see only one, two or none that look like me.  In all four of my classes that day, students pointed out that while Alex Landau’s story certainly had a strong theme, it didn’t have a resolution.  I asked my students if they thought the police would have reacted in the same manner if I had been in Landau’s shoes, to which they quickly replied in unison with a resounding “No!!!”.  I asked my students if they thought that was fair, and again my question was hammered back with another “No!!!”.  I told them that I agreed with them, and that it wasn’t fair, and that I hated that for them.

We then moved on to examine a model narrative written by an 8th grader in California called “The Racist Warehouse“.  The story is told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl who is shopping for a new dryer with her mother in a completely white neighborhood.  They are discriminated against by the employees from the moment they enter the store as they are constantly being followed and monitored.  When the mother actually makes her purchase, they end up having to wait for nearly an hour before the dryer is finally loaded up onto their U-Haul.  They watch multiple groups of white customers get their purchases ahead of them, even though the narrator’s mother bought her item well in advance of these people.

My students KNEW what it felt like to be followed around a store or mall by employees or security guards.  They asked me if it had ever happened to me.  They wanted to know what I would do if I was in that situation: would I be mad?  Would I get an attitude after 55 minutes of waiting as the girl’s mother in the story had?

I told my classes that of course I would be angry, and that I’d probably write a strongly worded email to the company and demand some sort of compensation for the inconvenience.  I told them, though, that I had never been treated like that as a customer, and a girl in the back said, “Cause you white”.  I nodded in agreement.

The discussions we had that day in all of my classes were powerful, especially considering we were just a week removed from the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I want my students to feel like our classroom is a safe place where we can talk about race and social injustices.  I hate it that some of them have already experienced overt racism similar to the girl from California, and I’m heartbroken when I think about my students’ futures because I know that at some point many of them are going to be treated unjustly as they become young adults simply because of the color of their skin.  As a white male, I have no idea what that feels like.  As much as I try to connect with my students throughout the year and build relationships, the best I can do when it comes to matters of race is to empathize with them because I’ll never know that kind of discrimination.

Coincidentally, the theme from my classes on Thursday found its way into my cross country practice that afternoon.  My team typically runs in the woods across the street from the school, and I always have the kids wait until everyone gets done with the run so that we can all cross the road together.  Sometimes I have to jog back a bit to encourage some of the less talented runners to push themselves all the way to the finish.  As the last couple of runners and I joined everyone else at the road on Thursday, I noticed that my principal was among them.  Apparently a woman had driven by my team and immediately called the school to report potential gang activity happening across the street, and my principal was just coming out to confirm what she already suspected: that it was just my cross country team, which is mostly comprised of African-American and Latino students, doing exactly what they were instructed to do by their coach.

 

Assessing independent reading without using the dreaded reading log

I read every single day.  During the school year, I typically read from a novel before going to sleep each night.  In the morning, I usually ingest news articles between bites of Cheerios and gulps of coffee before heading off to school.  Once summer hits,  I find multiple times throughout the day to leisurely read news, blogs and books.  I’m an English Language Arts teacher; I enjoy reading.

You know what would make reading unenjoyable?   If I had to write down the date, the title and the number of pages that I read along with a short summary.  I would hate to be forced to complete a reading log.  In theory, reading logs are intended to be used to hold students accountable for independent reading; they are meant to assure teachers and parents that their kids are in fact reading for 20 minutes a night in order to promote independent reading.  In reality, though, these logs are actually having the opposite affect on students.  Instead of encouraging an intrinsic love of reading in young people, reading logs inevitably make reading feel more like a chore, another thing that must be done, like making the bed.

inquiries_readinglog-level1_0

Want to remove the joy from reading?  Give your students one of these.

Reading logs take all the fun out of reading.  So why do we still use them in the classroom?  A big reason is the need for assessment, which typically comes with pressure from administrators.  Principals want to see proof that learning is occurring in the classroom. When students are all reading different books, the task of assessing that learning becomes trickier for the teacher.  But notice I said “trickier”, not impossible.  Reading logs are not the answer.   With a little creativity, we can get written responses from students in regards to what they are reading without the mundane request of “What happened in your book today?” (a staple question of any reading log).

I use a number of engaging closing strategies that illicit authentic responses from my students.  A lot of times, they don’t even realize they are being assessed; when it comes to talking about the characters and conflicts from their books, they want to respond.  Below are closers that I regularly use in my classroom to wrap up independent reading time:

  1. Give one piece of advice to a character in your book about a choice or decision that he or she made today.  Make sure that you explain to them why you are giving them this advice and how it is going to benefit him or her.
  2. Change something about a character in your book – it could be how he or she looks, feels or acts.  Explain why you are making this change to this character.
  3. Make a change to the plot of your book.  This change could be major or just something small.  Be sure to explain why you are changing this part of the story.
  4. Write about a scene that happened in your book today, but do it from the perspective of another character (in other words, not the narrator or protagonist).  How did he or she feel about what happened?  Why did he or she feel this way?
  5. Compare a character from your book to someone that you know in real life.  How are they similar?  How are they different?  Why did you choose to compare these two people?
  6. Compare a character from your book to a character from a novel that we have read together in class.  How are they similar?  How are they different?  
  7. Convince someone that he or she should read your book.  Why would he or she enjoy it?  Provide details from the story that help to support your claim. (This is a great one to use to reinforce those argumentative writing skills!)
  8. Pretend that you are a news reporter covering a scene from your book today.  Write a report explaining what occurred.  Where was it?  What happened?  Why? (This website allows students to create a realistic looking newspaper pdf file)
  9. Write a six-word summary about what you read today. (I love using six-word summaries in class!  Here is a great video to introduce this concept to students)
  10. Write a six to eight line rap that summarizes what you read today.  Make sure that the rhymes occur at the ends of each line. (I like making songs and rapping for my students, apologies in advance for the singing)
  11. Write a sentence using the following format: “Somebody wanted to…, but…, so…” (This is a super quick way to get students to write a response to what they have read, and it hits on key ELA skills like writing a succinct summary, using conjunctions, identifying conflicts and resolutions)
  12. Create a 3 to 5 question quiz over what you read today.  Each question must begin with either “How” or “Why”.

The aforementioned strategies can all be used to assess independent reading in the classroom.  And what’s more, I love reading the students’ responses to these questions, and they usually offer me chances to ask follow up questions that deepen our book discussions.  I don’t need a reading log to tell me that my kids are reading; I can tell by how earnestly a student provides genuine advice to a character from his or her book that that student is highly engaged in the novel.

 

 

Making independent reading a priority in the classroom

priority“This is your child’s lexile score.  We’d like for them to be at this level by the end of the year.  Make sure your child is reading for 20 to 30 minutes every night because that will help them improve their reading scores.”

I recited the aforementioned phrases to the parents, grandparents and guardians of every student that was in my homeroom during my first year of middle school Parent-Teacher conferences.  As any teacher (or parent for that matter) knows, these biyearly conferences are primarily an opportunity for the school to pass along a plethora of documents regarding district initiatives, state testing and report cards, with a small window of time also set aside to discuss a child’s academic and behavioral progress. My three-sentence platitude about the importance of a child reading on their own each night was a blip on the radar of the overall meeting.

I discovered during that first year that telling my students about the importance of reading on a daily basis at home had about as much effect as if I were encouraging them to eat 4 servings of vegetables.  The school where I work serves a student body in which over 92% of the population qualifies for free and reduced lunch.  In many of my students’ homes, there isn’t extra money lying around to purchase books; a lot of kids do not have access to reliable transportation that could get them to the local library.  I teach in a small college town with a population of about 150,000 people, and yet most of my students have never been to our county’s wonderful public library merely because it is located a little over 5 miles from where they live.

After reading Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer two years ago, I set out to create a culture of independent reading within my classroom.  The first step for me was to develop an extensive and diverse classroom library.  Once the books were in place, I had to figure out how to get my students to buy in to the idea of independent reading being a significant component of our time together.  Here is how I prioritize independent reading in my classroom:

Build time into the week for independent reading

If I’m going to preach the values of reading independently to my students and actually mean it, then as the leader of the classroom I’ve got to walk the walk.  When it comes to classroom expectations, no slogan could be more appropriate than “actions speak louder than words”.  Unless we are engaged in a writer’s workshop or state-mandated standardized testing, my students have two to three days in which they get 20 to 25 minutes of unencumbered independent reading time with books of their own choosing.  They are always focusing on a skill from the mini lesson (characterization, theme, identifying conflicts) and I typically have one-on-one discussions with each student as they read, but during this time they are sprawled out on the floor, under desks or up against the wall getting lost in their novels.  Students are far better at making inferences than we sometimes give them credit.  If you want the kids to read more, make it a priority in your classroom by setting aside dedicated instruction time for them to do so.  Believe me, if you value this time, they will too.

Talk about books

This advice may seem simple, but it’s incredibly important to establishing a reading culture in the classroom.  I give book talks to students at the beginning of the year to make them familiar with some of the more popular titles from a year ago so as to help guide them in their reading selections.  I also read alongside them one day a week in order to model, and I always talk to my students about whatever book I am reading at the time.  And guess what?  They love it!  I personally read The Girl on the Train this year, and several of my students in my 3rd period became so engrossed by the plot line that they were heartbroken to learn that our school library didn’t carry the title (truth: I dissuaded them from pursuing this book until they discussed its appropriateness with their parents).  As students progress throughout the year and they become more confident as readers, these book club-esque discussions will start happening organically outside of class.  I had several students in my homeroom this year that immediately retold to me significant events from what they had read out of their books the night before as soon as they walked into my room in the morning.  Some of my students would discuss what they were reading with classmates at lunch, especially if they had both read the same novel.  As teachers, we must afford students with the time to read on their own; but equally as important, we have to get them talking about what they are reading as well because that’s such an important part of the entire literary experience.

Celebrate their reading achievements

Whenever one of my students finishes a book, I always email our principal and ask her to include a special “shout out” to that student during either the morning or afternoon announcements.  Middle schoolers are fickle young people whose moods can shift on a dime, but they love positive praise, even if they may not openly admit it.  The announcements always include the title of the book along with the page count, just to highlight the weightiness of the achievement.  Kymora, a student in my 1st period this year, beamed with pride as she heard the principal proclaiming how she had read all 336 pages of Copper Sun by Sharon Draper.  Completing a book is a huge accomplishment for a student, and it should be treated as such.  I try to call home and let a parent or guardian know about the feat as well in the hopes that it might spark up a book discussion within the family.  Making a big deal out of students’ independent reading progress reminds them about the value of the endeavor.

Next week I will be discussing the tricky task of creating engaging assessments that can be used to monitor students’ independent reading.

We read a lot in Mr. Smith’s class

Hi, my name is Matt. I’m a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, and my classes do not finish our whole class novels together. I can hear the collective groans of my colleagues across the country.   To many Language Arts teachers, not finishing a novel with a class is down right blasphemous; it’s an act of treason against English teachers everywhere. However, if I’m going to prioritize independent reading in my classroom, I had to make a choice: I could read one book in its entirety with 80-something students, or I could have 80-something students reading 80-something books on their own. I went with the latter.

I didn’t just come up with this idea all willy-nilly on my own. Two years ago, I received a copy of The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller in a professional learning session at my school. Some of my colleagues held reservations about the effectiveness of Miller’s approach, and they questioned whether her successes could be replicated at a school like ours.

Allow me to provide some context to some of my coworkers’ concerns. I work at a rural Title I middle school in which over 90% of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.   Most of the students at my school have parents that did not go to or finish college. For a lot of these kids, reading is not an activity that occurs regularly throughout their households. I usually start the year with 5% to 10% of my students reading on grade level, with many of them reading several grade levels below where they should be. Near the beginning of every year, our school tells parents that their child should be reading for 20 to 30 minutes a night. However, how likely is that going to become a routine for a child that doesn’t have access to books at home and rarely sees an adult modeling reading for pleasure?

After reading Miller’s book, I decided that if my students were going to learn to love reading, if they were going to learn to navigate genres and if they were going to realize that they could in fact spend twenty to thirty minutes of their lives reading, I was going to have to provide them with a chance to do it in my classroom.

I had no idea how I was going to be able to tell if they were actually reading or not. I also wasn’t sure as to how I could assess them on what they had read, since I hadn’t read every book in my classroom library. I also wasn’t totally confident that they could sit still and focus on a book for nearly half an hour.

Despite all these unknowns, I went for it. Independent reading became a regular activity in the “Work Session” portion of my lesson plans. My first year of implementing this approach was not without its struggles and shortcomings. But by and large, the kids bought in. They finished entire books on their own, something that many of them had never done (we didn’t count whole class novels in that category since many times their previous teachers had read a great portion of the book aloud to the class). Students began to discover the kinds of genres they favored as well as the different writing styles that they preferred.   A lot of kids came to the realization that they actually enjoyed reading, and they saw themselves as a part of a greater reading community.

In addition to all of the emotional successes that my students attained, they also realized substantial gains in both their lexile levels and end of year test scores. Since I began making independent reading a significant part of our daily routine, my reading and test scores gains have continued to be higher than both the county and state averages.

Teaching 12 and 13-year-old kids how to become independent readers is hard, if not exhausting, work, but it’s also invaluable. This blog will be a place where I hope to share with other educators the journey that my students and I have taken into the world of literary exploration.