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.

 

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Making evaluating arguments fun for middle schoolers

Pedagogical highlight of the week:

Last week, we worked on analyzing and evaluating the effectiveness of written arguments.  We discussed what makes an argument strong (facts and evidence), and what weakens an argument (unsupported opinions).  The kids underlined and annotated multiple written arguments, identifying important elements like the author’s claim, thesis, reasons and evidence.  Eventually, my students will begin crafting written arguments of their own, so it’s critical that they be exposed to exemplars so that they have models to draw from when they begin writing.

While highly important, examining written arguments may not be considered the most engaging classwork to the average 13-year-old.  I’m a realist. I know that my students are not jumping out of bed and rushing to school with the hopes that I will have an essay for them to annotate. Most of my students are really into their independent reading books, and they are enjoying our class novel as well.  Argumentative writing is taking time away from both of those activities, which means it has the potential to be met with some resistance.

In an effort to spice things up a bit, I felt like I had to get away from just identifying the key components of an argumentative essay and having the students answer questions about the essays they were reading.  I wanted them to produce something to show me that they understood the validity of the argument.

So I had them create an advertising campaign for an essay that they read about the dangers of using a cell phone while driving.  Here’s how I mapped it out:

  1. They read the essay on their own and underlined the author’s claim and any supporting evidence.
  2. In groups of three, students compared their findings and decided which evidence was the strongest.
  3. We reconvened as a class and discussed the claim of the essay and any relevant evidence or statistics that the author used to strengthen her position.
  4. I showed my students the following anti-smoking advertisements.  We first identified each ad’s claim and the facts that were included as well.  I also asked the kids to notice how the campaign had cleverly used images that were interwoven into the ad’s perspective and supporting evidence.

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5. Students were challenged to create an advertisement against cell phone usage while driving, and they had to use information from the Hang Up and Drive essay to help them design their ad.

Here are a few of the more creative finished products:

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Both of these students made the artful decision to put the text evidence inside the phone screen in their advertisement.  I told each student that I thought that their idea could easily be a real ad a magazine.

If time permits, I generally ask students what they think about lessons, especially when I try something new like this.  Overall, the feedback was pretty positive on this one. Most of the students enjoyed the opportunity to produce something other than a standard written response.  I really value the feedback that I get from these quick conversations, and I would definitely encourage teachers to solicit comments from students regarding instruction whenever possible.

This week, my classes will be co-constructing argumentative essays using evidence from an NPR article on school start times.  This will be the first time that I’ve constructed an essay with the entire class, and I’m very curious to see how it plays out.  I’ll have to report back next Sunday with a full analysis of the pros and cons of co-constructing an argumentative essay with 20-something 7th graders at the same time.  What could possibly go wrong, right?

Heart-warming moment of the week:

I have three boys in my 2nd period that have formed a quasi-book club that kind of organically arose from our independent reading time.  First, they all read Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  Then they read Solo by Kwame Alexander.  When I took their class to the library this week, I overheard the three of them deciding upon the next book that they would read.  They wanted another book written in poetic form.  They also needed a title with three available copies in the library.  They settled on Nikki Grimes’s Planet Middle School, the coming-of-age story of self-proclaimed tomboy Joylin Johnson and her journey into adolescence and eventually her first crush.  I cannot wait to hear their in-class discussions on this book, and I LOVE that they are reading a book told from the perspective of a female protagonist, since so much of what they have been reading has been told from a male’s point of view.

 

Graphic novels as a gateway to literacy for struggling readers

My principal has fully-supported the choice reading time that I give my students at the beginning of class each day.  In fact, she’s supported it so much that’s she’s asked the 6th and 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) teachers to begin implementing a similar approach to their classrooms as well.  This week, an 8th grade ELA teacher found me at buses after school after her first day of trying this new strategy; in short, she was frustrated.  She relayed that only half the kids read, and she spent the majority of the 10 minutes fighting the other half to read something.  Apparently, if students weren’t interested in a book in her classroom library, they could read a NewsELA article.  Now, I’m a HUGE NewsELA fan.  I regularly use it in my classroom when I want to level the informational texts that we read.  But I’d never force it upon students during independent reading time. Maybe a few would be interested, but I’m guessing not many.

I then suggested that she could offer graphic novels to the reluctant readers.  She looked surprised and stated that she didn’t want her students reading graphic novels because they “weren’t real books”. Yes, she said this.  I briefly tried to explain to her that they could be a good option for a struggling reader, but she disagreed.  Although I wanted to continue this conversation with her, I had to run to get to a meeting that was a 20-minute drive away, so this blog post will have to suffice.

If I didn’t have the meeting, I would have argued vehemently that graphic novels are most certainly books, as much as any other books are books.  My room is filled with graphic novels like American Born Chinese, Awkward, Drama, Sisters, Smile, Persepolis, March, Cardboard, Roller Girl, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, and I Am Alfonso Jones.  These books examine a host of universal themes: friendship, family, acceptance, equity, determination and persistence.  They contain complex characters that develop and grow throughout the story.  They offer unique perspectives that encourage students to explore varying viewpoints that promote empathy, kindness and relationships.  Graphic novels expose students to story arcs: rising action, climax, conflicts, resolutions.

In addition, graphic novels give struggling readers the boost they need to begin to see themselves as readers.  I’ve had countless struggling readers complete a graphic novel in my class and beam as they tell me it’s the first time they’ve read a book from cover to cover.  That is HUGE. Reading feels far less daunting to a kid when they gain the confidence that comes from knowing they can read a book in its entirety.  I have an English Learner in one of my classes that seems determined to read all 26 volumes of the Dragon Ball Z box set, and I’m all for it.  Those books contain thousands of words.  Why wouldn’t I want him to devour them?

Teachers are always going to have a handful of students that enter their classrooms at the start of the year with an indifference to reading.  It may not be many kids, but inevitably, there will be a few.  I try to get a graphic novel into the hands of these students as soon as possible. Once they complete a graphic novel something inside them clicks.  It almost never fails. Then they read another graphic novel.  And then another.  Guess what eventually happens?  These same students start choosing chapter books that they never would have dreamed of attempting to read when we first met in August.  This happens EVERY SINGLE YEAR.  The graphic novels are a gateway to literacy for students who haven’t had a positive relationship with reading in the past.  They offer these kids an opportunity to realize that they are in fact capable of engaging with a book on a deeper level on their own.

I’m constantly adding to my classroom library. Like many teachers, I probably spend too much money on books. But also like many teachers, I will continue to buy more engaging texts that I think will captivate my students, and I will most certainly continue purchasing graphic novels.

 

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.

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.

Using “Status of the Class” to learn more about our students’ reading habits

Reading Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild two years ago was a game-changer for my Language Arts classroom. That book shifted the way my students engage with reading. Each week, my students receive allotted time in class to choose what they read; they explore new genres; they discover their favorite authors.  

In previous posts, I’ve already highlighted the numerous benefits that arise from giving students the space to read for pleasure in the classroom.  I’m not going to do that again here, but in short, kids need opportunities to get lost in books during class time.  For teachers, this means relinquishing some control and suppressing the urge to push state standards, but it’s integral to develop of a child’s literacy.

The reason I am writing today is to highlight a tool that I pulled from Miller’s book that I use every time my students read independently: “Status of the Class”, an activity that will hopefully one day eradicate the use of the dreaded reading logs. Nothing takes the fun out of reading more than having to fill out a mundane log in which you document the pages that were read and  then write a summary about it.  I don’t keep a reading log on my nightstand so that I can track my progress through a book, so I’m not going to make my students do it either.

Four simple words: Status. Of. The. Class.  I love this activity so much that I’m including a link to a free copy in this post.

Here is how it works:

I use a three-column table that contains the following information: student name, book title, page number, “I’m at the part where” and “A/N/S”.  For me, it’s way easier to type in the kids’ names for each class so that I don’t have to continue to handwrite them in each week; rather, I just print out copies and make sets for the days that my students will read independently.  

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I apologize for my slopping handwriting; sometimes it’s hard to write neat when quickly jotting down so many responses. Also, an “F” means that a student finished a book.

While students are reading for the pre-established amount of time, I circle the room and jot down the title of each child’s book.  As I enter in the titles, I go to the last column and put in either an A, N or S (A= abandoned, N = new, S = same).  If a student quits a book and starts another, I label that with an A.  If they are continuing with the same book from the last time we read I designate an S, and if they are starting a new book because they finished the one that they were reading previously I enter an N.  These three little letters offer an incredible amount of insight into my students’ reading habits.  As teachers, the progression that we most want to see is for students to go from an S to an N, as this means that they are reading books to completion.  However, the A’s really help me hone in on my struggling readers, and through short conversations I can learn why these students are leaving the books that they have started; furthermore, I can use their responses to help recommend different books and genres that might be more suited to these particular students.

Once the allotted time of independently reading comes to a close, the most fun part of this whole activity really begins, in my humble opinion.  Students take turns giving me two pieces of information: page number and “I’m at the part where…”.  I tell my kids that their “I’m at the part where…” should be a quick, short summary of what is going on in their books at this exact moment.  Hearing twenty-something students providing a small piece of their book’s plot is pure entertainment given the diversity of the responses. It’s also a quick and easy way to peak students’ interest into what their peers are currently reading.  After I’m finished with the whole class, I usually give the students a few minutes to discuss with a partner over something that they heard, and there’s rarely a dearth of conversation.  This whole process takes roughly 5 to 8 minutes.

While it seems obvious that getting the page numbers from the students is an easy way to track their progress, it also holds them accountable.  If a student reads just a page or two during a 15-minute independent reading segment, I can have a private conversation with them to figure out why they are not taking advantage of this time.

I hope that I have done a sufficient job of explaining and promoting “Status of the Class” as I think it is vital part of any independent reading program.  I have such a stronger understanding of my students’ reading tendencies through the use of this activity, and I will continue to employ it as my classes continue on their independent reading journeys this year.

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.