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.

The Power of (very short) Stories

As soon as I created my own very short story, modeled after VISA’s Go World videos, I knew I would have my students create their own.

For our introductions at the Book Love class I attended with Penny Kittle this summer, she had us watch a few of the Go World videos, and then imitate one of the structures. This is harder than it seems.

Here’s a few of the ones I watched and transcribed. They all represent moments that matter in the person’s life, and they are only in 35 to 60 words.

Lopez Lomong started running when he was six. And he didn’t stop for three days and three nights as he escaped life as a child soldier. Twenty years later he was still running; he just had a different thing driving him every step of the way.

Hours before his race in ’88, Dan Jansen’s sister Jane passed away. He’d promised her he’d win gold. He didn’t — until six years later. Then he skated a victory lap with his daughter — Jane.

Derek Redmond didn’t finish in first place in the 1992 400 meter. He didn’t finish in second or third or fourth. He, and his father, finish dead last. But he and his father finished.

People had been leaping over the high jump bar the same way since the sport began until one day when Dick Fosbury came along and moved the whole sport forward by going over the bar backwards.

You should watch a few of you own. Then write down the words and look at the structure of these very short stories. Then, I challenge you to write your own.

Think about your writing process as you write. Revise in your notebook. Pay attention, so you can share your process with your students. I’ve learned that the best thing I can do as a writing teacher is let them see me struggle as I try to make meaning.

I ended up writing four different versions with four different structures before I wrote a version that pleased me.

Here’s mine:

I am introducing this writing activity to students next week. I thought about having them write a full-blown narrative first and then having them cut their stories down to their own Go World stories. That would be an interesting exercise in word choice. I decided instead to have students write and create their own videos first — then we will tackle descriptive writing and work on exploding our very short stories into ones with a little more substance.

I opted for the fast-track to build community.

Story does that, you know.

Any ideas on how you might use this type of mentor text with your students? or any others you’ve had success with?

Beautiful Sentences

Sometimes we just enjoy the beauty of the language. I don’t usually write in my novels, but I did mark “I love this sentence” in the margins when I read this book.

I do not know how many of my students will read this novel, although it is a Pulitzer Prize winner, I am not sure many students will be interested in the musings of a dying Calvinist minister as he writes letters to his young son. They might.

I will show them the lovely language.

Like this sentence on page 71 of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson:

“As you read this, I hope you will understand that when I speak of the long night that preceded these days of my happiness, I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort — grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace. Almost never.”

Teacher friends, do you have favorite beautiful sentences that you share with students?

Mentor Texts Are Everywhere!

This time last year I was amidst a mad dash – a mad dash in seeking out, organizing, asking about, researching, contemplating, and gathering the ‘best of the best’ of mentor texts.  I had just learned what a mentor text was (text that, well, mentors!) and wanted to make sure I had a plethora to kick off the school year.  And, I did.  I had gathered so many I wasn’t even sure when, and in what context, I would be using them.  But, they were ready and I felt confident that I was too.

This year, it’s a bit of a different story.  After implementing the Reading Writing Workshop model in my urban oasis for the first time this past school year, I realized there is no longer a need to be dashing about.  Mentor texts are everywhere!  Literally.  They are in the morning’s newspaper.  They reside in the autobiographies I always find myself engaging in (and of course, loving).  Articles promulgating the Twitter circuit for the purposes of dissecting content and craft.  Classics, more modern, and everything in between became focal points of inquiry and investigation.  Students’ independent reading books shed light on crafty moves authors strategically choose to utilize.  On occasion, an excerpt from professional development texts deserved a public viewing (sometimes with scrutiny, sometimes not).  Nothing is off limits.

So, it is no wonder that as I have been reading a vast array of literature this summer; I have new mentor texts lined up for this coming school year that I am thrilled to explore with my students.  So, grab your Writer’s Notebook and flip to your Next-To-Read list.   I hope you not only fall in love with these pieces, just as I have, but they inspire you to think about what you’re reading and how you’d like to share them with the brilliant and inquisitive minds occupying your learning community.

Making Meaning with Texts: Selected Essays by Louise Rosenblatt was first introduced to me in this summer’s UNH Literacy Institute via Penny Kittle’s Book Love course.  This piece sent a buzz all throughout the campus as we were asked to read it for homework and come prepared to discuss it the next day.  Before the night was through, classmates were chronicling their amazement and joy with Twitter posts such as:  “Reading Louise Rosenblatt for homework and keep saying “Amen, sistah!” in my head. #unhlit14″.  So, you can only imagine how this Reading Theorist evoked an awakening in us all.

IMG_20140630_221534

It was when I came to this paragraph that I realized I had just stumbled upon an incredible mentor text; not only for myself as an educator, but for students as well.  What better way to expose students to the questioning and thinking behind our reading and writing than by sharing the source with them?  These questions are going to guide us through our reading (and writing) journeys this year.  We are going to study these questions, make sense of them, put them into practice; but, we are also going to really delve into why Rosenblatt has chosen these questions to guide us.  See, that’s where exploring craft and an author’s intention becomes our focal point.

 

 

battle 1

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mae Barnett is a clever and witty piece that is sure to get students charged up about editing and revising.  How could it not?  This entire piece chronicles the the narrator’s (yes, the bunny) stylistic and creative writing journey.  The entire story is marked up, crossed out, reworded, and illustrated to show the power of the writing process.  It’s beautiful.

While I educate students ages 16-21, and this piece (I’m sure) was not intended for that audience, I believe this mentor text will be a lighthearted way to quell some of the fears that override their writers’ anxiety.  We know, many students are uncomfortable and afraid to revise, rework, or allow their time-intensive writing pieces to become ‘messy’.  Yet, that’s what produces the most profound writing.

battleI know this may be a risky move in my classroom.  Yet, I’m going to take a chance.  I anticipate shared laughter as we navigate this piece together.  I also plan to explore the bunny’s intentions and make it relevant for our work as writers:  Why did he feel the need to rewrite the story?  Do the illustrations add to the message he is portraying?  Do any of his original thoughts (verse his revisions) feel more powerful to you?  What intentional moves did he make in re-creating this story?  And on and on.

IMG_20140812_121342

Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany by Hans J. Massaquoi is a piece I have not been without this entire summer.  And, although I’m finished reading it, I find myself flipping through the pictures over and over; it’s that profound. Massaquoi is a mentor of life, overcoming adversity, obtaining the (perceived) impossible, and what it truly means to be human.

Journalist by trade, Massaquoi takes such grace in his every word, sentence, and strategic ‘move’ that’s crafted.  This book encapsulates 443 pages of sheer brilliance and I want students to be exposed to this kind of writing because they too, have the ability to craft such beauty.

I also want them to catch a glimpse into my journey while reading this piece (note post-its) because I want to share what I found fascinating.  I want to explore some of the word choices (see my unknown word list) IMG_20140812_121513and talk strategy.  I want to use some of these words within my own vernacular and challenge students to do the same.  Most importantly, I want to show them that reading is a process; not one to shy away from.  And yes, sometimes it takes work, but overtime it becomes natural…and wildly fulfilling.

I can’t help but think, above and beyond the work I plan to do with this text, that the historical context won’t propel students in their study of history as well.  World War II and the Holocaust have rarely been depicted from the racial standpoint in which Massaquoi portrays.  This just may be a piece that peaks enough intrigue among students that they too will add it to their Next-To-Read list.  That’s my goal.

 

 

IMG_20140812_124058You are a Baddass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero has found its way into my Survival Book Kit and I love it!  I’m just past the first thirty pages, yet I have not stopped laughing.  Yes, out loud.

Sincero most definitely has a way with words.  She is edgy and a straight shooter for sure.  Yet, she is able to talk about really serious life-changing ideas in a way that feels ‘light’.  Not your typical self-improvement piece.

I want students to see how infusing humor among the serious can be oh-so-powerful.  Utilizing analogies to talk about the conscious and subconscious mind provides readers visuals…imagery.  A way to process this vitally important information that can shape their lives.  In only the most positive of ways.

I plan to choose the excerpts from this text skillfully.  I want students to have access to the content and the craft…as always.  I do foresee really rich one-on-one reading conferences with those that decide it’s time to make a change in their lives, or at the very least are up for a great laugh, and decide to take this piece on independently.

I hope my four have inspired you.  I really do.  I hope it will do the same for my students.  I encourage you to also share your favorites, here on this site.  As we all gear up for an incredible year to come, and we are swiftly shifting into our ‘going back to school’ mode, this is a wonderful time to start thinking about what we’re reading in a way that lends itself to the idea of being a mentor text.  Articles, books, poetry, graphic novels…all are welcome.

 

 

 

Confession: I’m dating a “non-reader”

“I don’t like to read.”

These words slipped off the tongue of my date as he sat across from me digging into a burger. I could’ve excused myself to the bathroom then slipped out the restaurant’s back door. Instead, I sat, paralyzed by his open admission.

Does he not realize I teach English? My quaint dreams of cozy dates at used book shops and Sunday mornings curled around novels dissipated. I couldn’t possibly share my life with a non-reader. I spent months fostering a love for literature in my students. I handpicked books for my teens, stocked my shelves with the latest releases, and inhaled literature in my free time. Dating a non-reader was like sleeping with the enemy.

The date was dead.

Or so I thought.

Two years later, we are still together, and Eric has proven to be one of my most valuable assets in understanding self-identified non-readers. Just as I had pigeon-holed Eric into an archetype of resistant male readers, he had categorized me into the antiquated outline of his high school English teachers—the ones who made him hate reading in the first place.

Eric’s teachers were staunch traditionalists. They assigned classics then tested, quizzed, and sucked any joy or personal exploration out of the books, leaving a pulpy mess of literary repulsion. Eric didn’t identify as a reader because his teachers had given him every reason to not identify as one: he struggled with literary analysis and didn’t enjoy fiction. Like many of my students, he skated through English relying on online cheat sheets to get around reading the required books.

This same resistance to identify as a reader plagues many students who step into my classroom. They have fixed perceptions of what a reader is or should be— a person who reads fast, favors classics and fiction, and enjoys literary analysis. Self-identified non-readers see no room in reading for personal growth, gratification, interest, exploration, and pleasure. Ultimately, they see no room for who they are as a person when they recognize that the only celebrated books within English classrooms are those that fit a set standard of literary merit.

Eric's "to read" shelf

Eric is drawn to informational books. Here are some of the books on his “to read” shelf.

Eric was a self-identified non-reader simply because he did not favor traditional literary classics that his teachers drilled in high school. Yet when I first met him, he voraciously read online articles. Gradually he found his niche in books that dealt with scientific theories and particle physics. Recently, Eric completed The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments by Jim Baggott, a 410 page book, and he is halfway through A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, which is 478 pages. Furthermore, he listens to audiobooks on his commute to and from work and our bookshelves are packed with volumes on his to-read list, including On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo.

If Eric is a “non-reader,” he is exactly the type of student I want in my classroom—the type who has a personal, vested interest in his or her reading and seeks to learn from the material. Gradually, I

Trevor's Reading

Trevor poses with his stack of books read throughout the year.

have come to find Eric’s reading patterns in my own students. Trevor who hated reading found his niche amongst non-fiction books like Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer while Ben, who was rarely interested in whole class reads, challenged himself with diverse genres ranging from science (Stiff by Mary Roach and The Double Helix by James D. Watson) to historical fiction (The Book Thief by Markus Zusak). These students need the time and space to not only figure out how to define themselves as readers but to also establish a sustainable reading pattern.

By definition, readers are individuals who “look at and understand the meaning of letters, words, symbols, etc.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Thus, as long as a student can read, they are readers—classics, fiction, and stereotypes aside. But as English teachers, we must not only show them that this is the case, but also we must help them to foster reading lives that reach beyond the classroom. A generation

of apathetic teen readers doesn’t have to lead to a generation of

Ben's reading

Ben with this stack of twelve books.

apathetic adult readers.

This past weekend while winding the back roads of a coastal Maine town, Eric and I spotted a library book sale. I would usually be the one to erratically swerve to the side of the road and park on a sidewalk if it meant gathering additional books for my classroom library, but this time, it was Eric. As I sorted through the stacks of books, I looked up to find Eric with a stack equal to my own. This was exactly the type of person I could spend my life with.

Read Like a Writer

Katie Wood Ray quoteI didn’t know what it meant to read like a writer until I stumbled upon Teaching That Makes Sense. I love that site, and I printed out every pdf doc available, reading everything as I punched three holes and secured them in a big fat binder. Honestly, I do not remember half of all those helpful things, but I am grateful that the light finally dawned, and I realized that reading like a reader and reader, and reading like a writer, are not the same.

How did I make it through my higher education and not know that? OR maybe I did, and I just didn’t flip the switch that made me realize the need to ‘pay attention’ and explicitly teach it to my students.

I am sure the simplicity of TTMS helped. I thank Steve Peha for that.

Reading like writers is the basis for analysis. I’d learned the importance of teaching students to analyze at the numerous Pre-AP workshops and AP Summer Institutes I’d attended. I’d never learned about how to teach students how to teach themselves how to analyze — quite simply by paying attention to how the author constructs meaning.

I’d been pulling passages from the classic texts we were (not) reading. I’d given released prompts and

asked students to complete timed writings. I’d done all kinds of cruel and unusual assignments because I didn’t get that to read like a writer is the crux of good writing instruction. (It’s also the crux of good reading instruction.)

Now, I teach my students to pay attention. As we read our self-selected books, we watch for the ways the author crafts meaning. We notice imagery and what it does for the author’s message. We notice figurative language that helps create this imagery. We might underline sentences that speak to us boldly or whisper to our souls. And we talk about how these elements create tone and theme. But more importantly, we talk about why these sentences speak to us as people.

In my class at UNH this summer, a classmate asked Penny Kittle if there was a list of examples from books to use for this study that Penny calls “play.” Penny shook her head and said:

“No list of books will ever teach this for you. You must change the way you read.”

I agree. Now, when I read, I look for gold. I read because I love the story, but I also read to find beautiful language that I can share with my students. I project passages on the board that we read together. Sometimes we just read and enjoy the language. Sometimes we write a response to the meaning of the text. Sometimes we analyze the elements, talking about why the author used the device and how that device affects the meaning.

Sometimes students model this language in their own writing. Most learn to pay attention as they read. Because once they get it, they are the ones projecting the passages they find, and sharing their own golden language.

Every other Monday on this blog I will post examples of the types of texts I use in my class for craft studies. If you have your own favorite passages, some kind of gold you’ve found in your reading, please share in the comments.

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