Sometimes There’s This One Book

Before the first day of school this year, I learned that a student who was to attend our campus took her own life. She was 15. This would have been her 16th year. It should have been a shining time for her:  a junior in high school, a driver’s license, maybe her first job, and if her family was like mine, her first date (I had to be 16).

Her family, of course, is devastated. I didn’t even know this child, and I am devastated, as I am every single time I hear of the awful reality of suicide.

We have to do something.

I don’t know what, really. I do know that the world should be a hopeful place. I also know that so often adults refuse to act like it is. I am as guilty as the next guy of going through the motions, mirroring the depressive nature of my Bad Day. But I vow to stop.

I want to be an example of hope. I want to smile more. Love more. Laugh more. I want my students to see that I love my job. I cannot wait to get there. (That’s what being at a new school has done for me this year. I’ve let the negativity that I let nag at my soul so long go, and I feel new, reborn, liberated. Strange to use those words, I know, but they describe the “freeing” best.)

Recently, I read Matthew Quick’s book Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock, and it rocked my world. Seriously. You know when you read a book, and then it haunts you — like forever? This is one of those books for me. I am, and will be, a better teacher, friend, wife, mother, daughter, colleague, leader, consultant because I read this book.

Here is a bit that I will use in class. Maybe we’ll use this passage for close reading. It’s a good one for tone or sentence structure. Maybe we’ll use it to launch a class discussion about hopes and dreams and how to hold on to them. I don’t know yet. But there’s something important here — for us and our students. Read it. You’ll see what I mean.

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, p46-47

The whole time I pretend I have mental telepathy. And with my mind only, I’ll say– or think?–to the target, “Don’t do it. Don’t go to that job you hate. Do something you love today. Ride a roller coaster. Swim in the ocean naked. Go to the airport and get on the next flight to anywhere just for the fun of it. Maybe stop a spinning globe with your finger and then plan a trip to that very spot; even if it’s in the middle of the ocean you can go by boat. Eat some type of ethnic food you’ve never even heard of. Stop a stranger and ask her to explain her greatest fears and her secret hopes and aspirations in detail and then tell her you care because she is a human being. Sit down on the sidewalk and make pictures with colorful chalk. Close your eyes and try to see the world with you nose–allow smells to be your vision. Catch up on your sleep. Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Feed squirrels. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day. Show me it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy. Please. This is a free country. You don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. You can do anything you want. Be anyone you want. That’s what they tell us at school, but if you keep getting on that train and going to the place you hate I’m going to start thinking the people at school are liars like the Nazis who told the Jews they were just being relocated to work factories. Don’t do that to us. Tell us the truth. If adulthood is working some death-camp job you hate for the rest of your life, divorcing your secretly criminal husband, being disappointed in your son, being stressed and miserable, and dating a poser and pretending he’s a hero when he’s really a lousy person and anyone can tell that just by shaking his slimy hand–if it doesn’t get any better, I need to know right now. Just tell me. Spare me from some awful f******fate. Please.”

 

Note:  There are two footnotes in this passage. I left them off quite simply because I do not know how to format them in WordPress. Sorry, Mr. Quick.

A Feedback Protocol for Revision Workshop

I didn’t mean to make them cry, but that’s what soul writing can do to a person. (Soul writing is what my students and I coined as the type of writing that rips at our guts, makes pools fall from our eyes, and leaves us lurching toward the door to “take a little break.”) We are only into the third week of school, and I tried a new protocol for feedback; something I learned at The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, directed by Dawn Potter.

Giving honest and critical feedback to one another is difficult for many of my students. So afraid of offering offense, they either do not say anything, or they do the proverbial pat-on-the-back and mutter “good job.” I tell  them that when they refuse to be honest in their feedback, it’s cheating. They cheat their friends out of ideas that can help them grow. And that is what we want in a community of writers — we want everyone to experience opportunities to grow.

The tears today watered some tender little seeds. All afternoon I gushed about it to anyone who who listen.

We sat in a circle around the large table in the center of my classroom. Many students came to class without their drafts*, so I sentenced them to the outer edges and advised them to get their brains and their pens working. I told them to write silently, but they might want to keep an ear tuned to the conversations happening in the middle. If they did, they learned more than they could have from any one-on-one conference with me.

First, I explained that giving feedback can be a bit tricky. We want to be honest, but if we do not deliver that honesty well, we can cripple our writer. (I use the word cripple because that was my own experience. I’d spent months drafting a chapter for my book. I’d finally finished what I thought proved to be a powerful piece of writing. Then I asked a friend, someone I trust, for feedback. She gave it to me: honesty cloaked in sweet little daggers. When I read her comments, all my ideas crumpled, and my focus limped right out the door. I didn’t write another word for six months.)

The “I wonder ____” protocol is really very simple:

Those who offer feedback:

  • Listen carefully as a classmate reads her piece.
  • Think about ideas that might help her improve it.
  • Offer feedback that allows for the writer to “play with the possibilities” (Dawn Potter) by putting the ideas you have that might help the writer revise the piece into statements that begin with “I wonder ___”.

Those who receive feedback:

  • Read the piece loudly and with clarity. (Repeat if necessary.)
  • Listen to the “I wonder” statements made by peers and write yourself notes.
  • Try to just listen (This is hard because we tend to want to justify why we wrote certain things).
  • Play with these various possibilities while revising.

 

I asked for a volunteer to read her writing. Eyes darted all around the table until Jessica read her draft.

Jessica went first:

Jessica GoWorld story

Wow, right? She punched us right in the stomach, and we sat in silence. Finally, I said, “Okay, we’ve got some amazingly powerful stuff right here. How can we improve it?” and they looked at me like I had hornets on my head. I knew I better go first, or this feedback thing wasn’t going to work.

“I wonder if you need to tell us that Lori’s a woman,” I said.

Long pause.

“I wonder who ‘assigned’ her to you,” Mikaila spoke up.

“I wonder what she did that was so helpful,” Mariam said.

“I wonder how you survived,” said Daissy.

Jessica listened, answering a few questions, and taking a few notes on the comments her friends gave her.

 

And we were off . .

 

Daissy read next:

Daissy GoWorld story

 

“I wonder who ‘those’ are.”

“I wonder what the problem was.”

“I wonder what happens next.”

“I wonder what happened that made you change.”

And then Daissy could not remain silent any longer. She had to explain her stuttering, and how she’s worked so hard to overcome it, and how now wants to major in broadcast journalism and speak on live TV.

We forgot to preface our comments with “I wonder” when we all told her THAT is the story she needs to write.

revision corrections 2-7-12Feedback Magic happened with this “I wonder” protocol. And it happened in every class period, and so did the tears.

Students shared the honest writing from their hearts, and students gave honest feedback with tender and caring insight. Writing improved.

Even better? Imagine being in this kind of classroom with this kind of community of writers.

Heaven.

 

 

*Our mentor texts were VISA Go World commercials. I got this idea from an assignment I did at a class taught by Penny Kittle at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute. We watched several of the videos in class and discussed and analyzed the various structures of these very short, yet poignant, stories. Students were to watch and analyze a few more examples, transcribing the words to use as models for their own writing. Then they were to write their own, playing with word choice and syntax.

Sentence Imitation with We Were Liars

I listened to the audiobook, and liked the novel so much I had to go and buy it in hardback for my classroom library. The story still haunts me. (I read it soon after I read Jellicoe Road, and that story haunts me, too. These two books make an interesting pairing.)

The following is the beginning of chapter two in We Were Liars. It’s an compelling list of sentences that create the the basics of what we need to know about our protagonist. It will be an interesting passage to use for sentence imitation.

I wonder what my students will say about themselves.

 

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart P4

My full name is Cadence Sinclair Eastman

I live in Burlington, Vermont, with Mummy and three dogs.

I am nearly eighteen.

I own a well-used library card and not much else, though it is true I live in a grand house full of expensive, useless objects.

I used to be blond, but now my hair is black.

I used to be strong, but now I am weak.

I used to be pretty, but now I look sick.

It is true I suffer migraines since my accident.

It is true I do not suffer fools.

I like a twist of meaning. You see? Suffer migraines. Do not suffer fools. The word means almost the same as it did in the previous sentence, but not quite.

You could say it means endure, but that’s not exactly right.

 

 

 

Chaos

The beginning of each school year is always chaotic.  Sometimes it’s the overwhelming chaos that can feel debilitating.  Other times it’s that quiet chaos that only you know ensues.  At times it creeps up on us in silence, yet we know it’s found its way into our spiraling minds.  But always, it lives within our being because, quite simply, we are so wildly passionate about upping the ante with each and every group of students that crosses our threshold.  This year, I welcome the chaos.

I have complete and utter belief that the Reading Writing Workshop (RWW) is exactly what my students need.  Better yet, I know in my soul, that it’s exactly what they deserve for their lives; both inside and outside of room 382.

Both inside and outside room 382 students are starting their journeys through the RWW.

Students are starting to journey through the RWW: Inside and outside of room 382.

We have a promising year ahead full with mentor texts, writer’s craft, brilliant student generated ideas, ‘aha’ moments, and all of the unknown that we are willingly going to dive into – together.  But, I would be remiss if I pretended that chaos and uncertainty were not eagerly awaiting our arrival.

Between rolling out the RWW in its entirety last year, more summer classes at the lovely campus of UNH’s Literacy Institute, and a month in the Bronx writing with the NYC National Writing Project; I have been planning.  Incessantly.  Yet, I very quickly realized that all of my planning may be better utilized at some other time, in some far off distance, or at the very least, later in the year.

My plans are fantastic.  I feel it in my gut.

Yet I know they will be utilized and enjoyed when the time is…right.

You see, the beauty within the RWW is that the authentic and natural flow is magical.  Straight up, hands down – magic.  The luxurious task of choosing which piece of literature to start with when oh-so-many are enticing.  The creation of one’s Writer’s Notebook.  The roller coaster writing that sheds light on our own movement and development as writers.  The organic inquiry that surfaces.  All of it.  Every piece is essential.

So you can imagine that after rounding day three of educating, fully engulfed by a feeling of unease, I knew that all of my planning was by no means an effort to be mourned but most definitely an effort that needed reshaping.  As to not let the chaos (starting its crawl toward my vulnerability) completely immobilize me, I made a decision right then and there.  I was by no means going to shift my expectations.  Instead, I had decided to rework all ideas I had about what my students would find engaging.  Because the reality is, my new students are not the same students as last year.

Students creating their Writer's Notebooks in ways that feel most authentic.

Students creating their Writer’s Notebooks in ways that feel most authentic.

Mystery books have flown off the shelves – for the first time ever!  Color is most often preferred when expressing themselves vs. the written word.  There is an untapped intellectual power among every young adult occupying each individual seat that is awaiting its own explosion.  Their passions have yet to be discovered within the context of our learning community.  And, not unlike years worth of previous students, they are incredibly focused and hardworking.

When students are not meshing with the material; when the sparkle does not twinkle in the corner of their eyes as they try to explore new found interests; or they have absolutely no questions…something’s wrong.  Very, very wrong.

I am responsible for guiding students through the beauty of the RWW to foster their own strength, perseverance, and dedication toward the development and growth that is inevitable to happen.  I feel the promise and hope.  I am no longer vulnerable nor am I even remotely entertaining the potentially consuming chaos.  Instead I am enjoying the exploration of new mentor texts while listening intently to the views and beliefs of my wildly intelligent learners.

Here’s to an invigorating year full of unforeseeable experiences, ideas reworked, and chaos debunked.

 

Growing Readers

Autumn in my New Hampshire school district.

Autumn in my New Hampshire school district.

In New England, where I teach, time is measured by temperature. New Englanders cherish Indian summers (the bout of warmth before fall settles in); we sense the bite of autumn, and can smell an oncoming snow. We are a community of seasons, and ultimately these changes dictate the course and development of our year. In turn, to show the development of my classes’ reading progress throughout the year, I drew my inspiration from what New England is famous for—its foliage. To visually represent my classes reading progress within the reading workshop, I developed a reading tree.

The concept of the tree is simple: for every book read, students received a leaf. On the leaf they wrote their initials, the book they read, and the author. They would then staple the leaf to their class’ branch. In turn, students had a visual representation of their individual progress (because they put their initials on the leaves) as well as their class’ progress. They would look to the tree to see what books were the most popular/appeared on the tree most often.

The bare tree before students arrived.

The bare tree before students arrived.

The reading tree exhibits student work and promotes individual success. In addition, it also reinforces teamwork since students look to see how their class is doing as a whole. Furthermore, the tree inspires friendly competition between classes. When I first introduce the tree, I tell students that the class with the most books read wins an ice cream party at the end of the year. This year, due to increased federal health regulations on snacks during the school day, my rules have changed. Instead, students will be able to drop two of their lowest reading scores. Unlike last year, I will tally the total books per class every quarter instead of at the end of the year to determine each quarter’s winner.

Construction for the tree is relatively simple and can be used from year to year.

Materials:

  • One concrete form tube sawed in half. I purchased mine from Home Depot and they sawed it in half for me
  • Two cans of brown spray paint. I used a textured spray paint similar to Rust-oleum’s multicolored textured spray paint, but you can use any type
  • A ream of brown paper—the same type you use to cover bulletin boards
  • A staple gun and staples.
  • Four packs of different colored paper for the leaves.
  • Brown or black duct tape
  • Bulletin board

Process:

  1. Spray paint the concrete form tube with the two cans of brown spray paint. This will serve as your trunk.
  2. Pull large sections of the paper of the ream and begin twisting the paper. As you twist the paper, begin stapling it to the concrete tube using the staple gun. Continue ripping off multiple pieces of paper from the ream, twist and intertwine them as you go along. This will make your trunk look three-dimensional and more realistic. Leave long ends on the bottom. Twist these to a point to create the roots of the tree.
  3. Before you get to the top of the trunk, fashion what looks like a strap. I did this by taking a piece of the brown paper and folding it to make a 2’ X 6” rectangle to wrap around the top of the trunk and affix to the wall. I reinforced the back of the piece of paper with brown duct tape. I then put this strap around the front of the trunk where the bulletin board first meets the concrete tube. I stapled the strap to the tree then the excess ends of the strap to the bulletin board to ensure that the tree wouldn’t fall over once it was complete.
  4. Finally, I continued twisting individual brown pieces of paper and then layering them by twisting multiple pieces together to create a thicker branch. Make sure to create a branch for each of your classes that will be participating.
  5. As you create the larger branches, staple them to the bulletin board. Because the paper is pliable, it is easily to manipulate to look more like a tree. Add smaller branches by twisting additional paper scraps.
  6. Cut out small leaves and store them in a jar or bag to give out to students as they finish their books. I usually have a volunteer cut them out for me so that I have a bulk amount for each quarter.
  7. Get excited to watch your tree (and readers) blossom!
    The reading tree full of leaves at the end of last year.

    The reading tree full of leaves at the end of last year.

While the tree may look complex, it does not take an extraneous amount of time to complete or teach to students. Last year, I allowed my classes to pick which branch they would like to use. Furthermore, I color coded the leaves based on the quarter. Each quarter, I would let my students pick the new leaf color. Green was the first quarter, red was second, orange was third, and yellow was fourth. Just as fall foliage shows the change of seasons in New England, the changing leaves showed my students their development and growth as readers throughout the year.

 

 

 

What is the “soundtrack of your rebellion?”

I liked this book in a lot of ways, and I hated it in others. Maybe because my heart is too soft for all the heartache and suffering of these children. The mother in me couldn’t stand it. Maybe because my Christian heart couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of so many people calling themselves Christian, the parents included. My friend raved about how her students devour this book. It has left me unsettled, but I do think many students will like the emotion this book evokes. It’s just not my kind of emotion.

This is a passage that I think my students will be able to make a connection:

Jesusland by Julia Scheers P159

That day I realized I wasn’t immune to my father’s violence. For years, while my brothers were whipped and I was spared, I thought I had some kind of biological privilege — that my father wouldn’t harm his own genetic material. But in their absence, my father didn’t have anywhere to train the spotlight of his rage on but me.

So when my parents left for another missionary meeting in California and the nurse from my dad’s clinic who was staying with me caught Scott climbing out of my bedroom window one morning, I left home. If my father wanted to choke me over a forgotten milkshake, what would he do to me for losing my virginity?

I moved in with my brother Dan and his three roommates at Purdue and found a part-time job as a busgirl at the Howard Johnson’s Hotel on Highway 52. I biked to work, and to Harrison –an hour’s ride away–if I couldn’t find someone to drive me. I didn’t go to school if I wasn’t in the mood for it, and a couple of teachers threatened to flunk me before passing me with D’s.

Although I was dirt poor–I paid half of Dan’s rent, and frequently resorted to eating off the room service trays I was sent to collect from the hotel hallways–I was happy. I didn’t have to go to church, spent hours watching MTV, and didn’t need permission to do anything. I was free.

I listened to Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil” on my Walkman as I rode through the streets of Lafayette on my bike, rewinding the cassette tape again and again.

It was the soundtrack of my rebellion. That was me, running with the devil. Doing bad things and liking it.

 

I wonder how students would respond to this question:  What is “the soundtrack of [your] rebellion”?

Sometimes, All You Have to Do Is Ask

We are eight days into the new school year in my wild and wonderful West Virginia classroom. We’ve dealt with all the usual beginning-of-the-year issues…schedule changes, locker problems, lost freshmen. But, we’ve also tried to address problems unique to students in the reading and writing workshop…I’m not a good reader, I can’t find books that interest me, writing is too hard for me because I have nothing to say.

We’ve got a long way to go, but at this early stage, what I’ve discovered is that my most successful teaching strategy has been to just…ask.

IMG_5034When Willy was reluctant to start a book last week, I just asked him to try. “Just give it a go for seven minutes, Willy. If you hate it at the end of that you can put it down forever!” He gave it a try, and ended up loving it–The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.

When I was driving past Barnes and Noble, daydreaming of books for my library, I decided it couldn’t hurt to just ask for some. “Hi, I’m a high school English teacher, and I was wondering…do you have any books slated for disposal that are damaged or unwanted?” As a matter of fact, they did, and they gave me two boxes of books on the spot–including 30 copies of The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky.

IMG_5010When one of our principals approached me with concerns about a book one of my students had chosen, I just asked him to listen. “Everything I do is research-based, and it’s all very effective. I believe in the book Lamont is reading and I’d really like not to take it away from him.” The jury is still out on the brilliant and hilarious Broetry by Brian McGackin–famous in my classroom for converting non-readers into avid consumers of poetry–but the principal did listen. We started a conversation over Ralph Fletcher’s Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices, Peter Johnston’s Choice Words, and the possibility of our English department developing an official policy on certain kinds of language in reading and writing.

Abby believed she had nothing to say–no story to tell.  When we began our first writing activity, I just asked for six words. “Check out these six-word stories and read like a writer…who is that writer? What story is she trying to tell? What story can you tell in six words?”  Students mentored themselves to Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure from Smith Magazine. They drafted and conferred and rewrote. Now, their stories–including Abby’s–line our classroom, told on colorful paint strips–a veritable rainbow of their Truths.

photo

I am so looking forward to this year. I believe in all of my students, and I believe that if I want them to truly be transformed into lifelong readers and writers…all I have to do is ask.

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