Winding Down to Gear Up

Last week I scored essays at the AP Reading in Kansas City. This was my first time. It will probably be solitudemy last. It was more exhausting than my first week out of school should ever have to be. I may be in recovery all summer.

A couple of weeks ago I asked my writing partners we might want to take a break from writing on the blog this summer. I need to write so I get a book done. That’s been my goal for way to long with nothing of substance to show for it — yet. I figured my TTT friends needed to be free to explore their own lives a bit. I knew we all had a lot going on, but I didn’t quite put it into perspective until I asked.

Shana wrote:  “I honestly feel like all four of us got the figurative sh** kicked out of us this year in a variety of ways — we can come back and attack a million new ideas in the fall.”

Jackie wrote:  “I am limping to the finish line” and in another email “I am waiting for the dust to settle.  I feel like my life is in boxes all over the places–both in my classroom and in my home.”

Erika wrote:  “After hacking my guts out for over a week, rounding the end of instructional time along with regents prep, and just being worn out…I round the corner today, open the recently painted door blazing with fumes from recently being painted (wonders for my asthma that’s already exacerbated), I walk down 1/2 of the staircase to find it blitzed with shredded paper.  If I wasn’t so darn exhausted I would have taken footage because that’s EXACTLY how I feel!  I need a rest; figurative, literal, physical.  All of it.  But, I love the idea of us winding down to gear up for another year of an even more incredible TTT!”

So, our dear teacher-friends who read what we write here, we are taking a little motivation vacation. We plan on reposting some of the content we’ve written in the past, but other than that — unless the need to write bites, and it often does, we will start posting again with fresh ideas and student-tested content and Secondary Readers and Writers Workshop in August.

Happy Summer!

Warmly,

Amy

Wrapping up with book trailers

After a slew of snow days and an extended year that pushed the end of school into the second-to-last week of June, my students’ motivation lagged as we approached our final month together. They needed an engaging project that still proved to be challenging and fun. Inspired by Amy’s work, my students and I celebrated the end of the reader’s workshop with a final book trailer project.

The process was organic; students latched onto the idea of watching mentor texts and dissecting the craft to gain a firmer understanding of the writing genre. Over the course of a few days, we analyzed and discussed the differences between the book and movie trailers for John Green’s upcoming film Paper Towns, a class favorite. We combed through countless examples of professional book trailers, dissecting the craft of the films and looking at the cinematography, hook, pacing, script, music, and scene choices. Finally, after brainstorming and storyboarding, students used Stupeflix, WeVideo, Puppet Edu, or iMovie to generate stunning book trailers. The results blew me away.  Here is a small sample of some of the trailers I’ll be using to supplement my book talks next year.

**Make sure to unmute the video. In some cases, the sound doesn’t automatically play.

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown–Created by Matt

http://https://www.wevideo.com/hub#media/ci/410328553

Perfect by Ellen Hopkins–Created by Emily

Missing Pieces by Meredith Tate–Created by Alyssa

Looking for Alaska by John Green–Created by Tristan

There are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation

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Emma was sunshine personified. She was salty hair and smiles and surfing. She was the student who sat in the front row, the one who showed up early to class just to chat. Emma died this past September in a car accident, one day after I revised her college essay, one day after she told me “one more concussion and I’ll be dead,” one day after she laughed off my nervous, “Be careful!”

When I first hear the news, I had been given the wrong students’ name, and I am ashamed to admit that for a moment I selfishly breathed a sigh of relief. But then her picture loaded, the pixelated image appeared line by line on my smartphone, her sandy blonde hair and smile, flashing section by section and I fell apart alone in my living room at 6:30am.

That was only the beginning.

Quickly students began unraveling. I am a second year teacher, a relative novice in the education world, yet I feel like I have lived a thousand lives. Had you asked me to reflect on my world after my first year, I would have peppered you with stories of passionate readers and personal successes, comedic performances of Macbeth, and classes that became family.

This year was different.

The questions weren’t the same, and while my first year had its own challenges, my second year was consumed with worst case scenarios. How was I supposed to deal with my seventeen-year-old students’ funeral? Where should I go when my student has an anxiety-induced nervous breakdown in the middle of class? How do I respond when my entire class just watched their classmate carried out in handcuffs? Or punched in the face in the middle of class? Or attacked by another student with psychiatric disorders and no impulse control? What do I do when my student disappears after being threatened with gang violence? Or because they attempted suicide? And these were only a handful of questions that I dealt with.

I have learned that there are years of innovation and then there are years of transformation. This was my year of transformation. No workshop or course could have prepared me to deal with the needs of my students this year. From them, I have learned unconditional commitment as a teacher. I have defended the rights of my students to remain in my classroom despite their disabilities. I have learned the value of opening my classroom as a safe space for those who have no place to go, whether that is at 7:00am or 4:30pm, to chat or just to read silently away from the prying eyes of peers. I have learned the value of openly modeling enthusiasm and empathy, of thanking them for filling my days with humor and love. I have learned the value of showing them that their words matter—that I will get their friend help immediately, that I will notice their change in disposition and book them an appointment with the school case worker, that I will sit with them in silence if that’s what they need.

I have a week-and-a-half left with my students, and while this year has saturated every ounce of my being, I will enter summer both as a stronger teacher and individual. As always, the end of our journey together is bittersweet, maybe even more so this year after the amount of time and personal energy I have invested into my students’ well being and success. This summer, I will delve into new novels and make lists of new lesson plans. I’ll attend multiple courses and collaborate on curriculum development, but I won’t forget that at the heart of my job is compassion. I can only hope that my students learn as much from me as I learn from them.

Good Writing Moves Us — THIS Writing Moves US

I want to include you in a celebration of the work of a student that represents several of my kids this year. If you teach, or have taught, ELL students, I know you will understand.

The last assignment was an intensive writing piece that we workshopped for about seven weeks. Writing in class almost daily, conferring regularly, and mini-lessons with mentor texts and modeling served as the routine. Students turned in their writing in three separate chunks, gave one another feedback at least three times, presented their final pieces (published on their personal blogs) as their semester exams. Formative assessments were student writing conferences and the checkpoints along the way. Summative assessments were a self-evaluation and a self-evaluation paired with my feedback from a rubric we crafted as a class.

Biak with the book she loved the most this year. She read 12.

Please read the writing of Biak Par. The poems are original, and the story is her own. Just before school was out, I had to call Biak to my desk and let her know that she failed the state English II EOC. Again. That was nothing short of heartbreaking — for both of us.

Take several minutes and read Biak’s story. You will read the words of an improving and authentic writer. These words are elegant, poignant, and powerful. Good writing moves us — this writing moves us. 

Now, take a look at Biak’s writing from the beginning of the year— her first blog post is here, and her second is here.

Now, think about her end-of-year piece of writing. I know it is narrative, but you will note what I do — improvement. So much improvement. Voice, coherence, organization.

I wish I had another year with Biak, and several of her friends. We’ve come so far, and this is the work she should be allowed to celebrate — not a test score.

I know — preaching to the choir.

#ShelfieShare – Growing Your Library

FullSizeRender[1]Yesterday was our last real day of school, and it was a busy one.  My students spent our last class periods together sharing their final multigenre writings with one another, clearing out their writing portfolios, and packing up their notebooks.

They also flooded me with classroom library books and sheepish smiles.

“Sorry,” Riley said, as she entered my classroom with a shopping bag full of books.  “I didn’t realize I had like 12 of your books at home.”

“I opened a cabinet and found like 20 of your books!” Emily said.

“If I bring back all your books, can I borrow like five for the summer?” Jordan asked.

“I found The Book Thief and almost just kept it, for the irony,” Hailey explained.

Now that all the books that are usually on kitchen tables, under beds, and piling on nightstands have begun to find their way back onto my bookshelves, things are looking a little crowded:

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The five bookshelves in my classroom are mostly full of independent reading books–a class set of literature and grammar books, dictionaries, and book club collections provided by my department find their homes on the bottom shelves, but everything else has been a labor of love to build on my own.

FullSizeRender[4]I began building my library six years ago, and started with anything I could find at Half-Price Books.  I spent $20 a month in the clearance section, netting $1-2 finds that built my sci-fi and YA sections, and used my staff ID to get an extra 10% off.  During the holidays, HPB ran promotions for free $5 or $10 gift cards with the purchase of a $25 gift card, and I took advantage of those aggressively.

Next, I discovered Barnes & Noble‘s very generous 25% teacher discount, and shopped mainly in their clearance section, which was always well stocked with “former bestsellers.”  This was perfect, as a book had been out just long enough to generate buzz among my students.  I became a bit of a regular there, and began to ask the manager if he had any damaged, extra, or reject books he didn’t want.  He obliged, providing me with class sets of The Perks of Being a WallflowerWaiting to Exhale, and Tuesdays with Morrie–totally gratis.  I also got lots of hardcover books that were being replaced by paperback editions, again, for free.

Next, I discovered the generosity of my school’s PTA, which granted teachers up to $100 per year in classroom supplies.  Every year, my $100 was spent at Wal-Mart, Half-Price Books, or any other purveyor of cheap books.

FullSizeRender[3]By the time the summer of 2013 rolled around, my library was in decent shape–I had about 800 books, mostly paperback, mostly YA and general fiction.  I traveled to New Hampshire to take Penny Kittle’s course about informational writing, and fell in love with nonfiction.  I also met my amazing friends Amy, Jackie, Erika, and Emily, who told me about DonorsChoose.  I created, and funded, several projects–especially ones that helped me get lots of nonfiction–right away, which increased the number of books in my library up to about 2,000–all without a dime of my own money.

I also created DonorsChoose projects that were funded every October by U.S. Cellular, a partner of DonorsChoose.  Depending on your state, big businesses or even celebrities may fund your existing projects of up to $1000.  I used this partnership to fund two $1000 grants, growing my library up to about 3,000 books.

FullSizeRender[2]For my next brainstorm, I began to write letters to local big-box businesses, asking for donations of gift cards to purchase books.  Target, Sam’s Club, Kroger, and Wal-Mart all granted me gift cards, nearly monthly, of up to $50 per month.  Target in particular was wonderful, as their website offers a wide variety of books, especially great nonfiction finds, and free shipping on purchases of $50 or more.

When I finally got an iPhone in October of 2014, I joined Instagram and followed lots of bookish accounts.  Through these book fanatics, I learned about Book Depository, which offers discounted books with free shipping to anywhere in the world; Books-a-Million, which has a wonderful bargain section and an awesome used books market; and the glorious world of GoodReads giveaways, where free ARCs can be won by one and all.

This summer, I’ll take a week of rest, then begin to write book donation request letters, a DonorsChoose grant, and a variety of Morgantown-specific grants.  I’ll focus on replacing lost or stolen books, getting newly-paperback titles, and building shelves I think are a little weak.  I hope you’ll use this slew of resources to build your library, and your readers’ choices, too!

What are your favorite strategies for building your library?

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

cinder

“Even in the future, the story begins with Once Upon a Time.”

Are you looking for a good old fashioned dystopian YA series to start your summer?

How about a modernization of a classic fairy tale?

Or, have you been craving a story about a cyborg mechanic, trying to avoid a plague, who’s got secret mental powers, a really crappy stepmother, and is actually a lost princess?

Well, if any or all of those books sound good to you, then look no further–this one will grant all your wishes.  Cinder by Marissa Meyer is book one of the Lunar Chronicles, a series incorporating futuristic versions of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and more.  But it’s not just a book that retells a classic fairy tale–my boy readers love it too, because Cinder is a mechanic who works on androids in a post-WWIII future.  Complete with hovercrafts, bizarre medical technology, and sinister political plots, this story really has it all.

“But if there was one thing she knew from years as a mechanic, it was that some stains never came out.”

As a narrator, Cinder is complex, likable, sarcastic, and the embodiment of different.  In her society, cyborgs are considered less than human, and she battles this stereotype throughout the story.  Still, she responds to her critics with dry humor that made me guffaw as I read, and an unapologetic bent that made me know she’d be a great role model for my students.  Cinder defies convention in every way–a female mechanic, a plain princess, a cyborg in a human society–and yet her bioelectric backbone keeps her standing tall through it all.  I truly fell in love with her character by the heartbreaking, humiliating end of this first book, and immediately ordered the next two on Amazon.

“It is easier to trick others into perceiving you as beautiful if you can convince yourself you are beautiful. But mirrors have an uncanny way of telling the truth.”

Marissa Meyer crafts an incredible, fascinating future in the Lunar Chronicles, and writes with a style and flair that lend personality to the dystopian drama that unfolds in this series.  I highly recommend Cinder and its sequels for the science fiction shelf of your classroom library–scoop it up to enjoy before the magic wears off at midnight!

A Yearlong Community

The sense of camaraderie and fellowship in our workshop classroom has ebbed and flowed this year.  Some days, I watch with pride as the readers and writers in the room help guide each other to a higher level of understanding, appreciation, or excitement.  Other days, I see disengaged students annoyed with one another’s antics.

Getting this community established at the beginning of the year takes time, but once the foundation is laid, it’s easy to keep it in place.

…Until you have 15 snow days in a row.

Or a student teacher.

Or a six-day block of testing.

Or 75-degree weather with sunshine, just out the window.

All of those common interruptions can derail a classroom community.  This year, though, I feel as close to my students as ever, and they are as tight-knit a group as can be.  Here are four reasons why.

Passion.  I’ve written before about how fangirling helps create a community of readers.  But it’s not just being excited about books that helps a classroom community develop–it’s passion about the work we do here as a whole.

Jordan, a student who joined our class in September, told me yesterday, “I still remember the first time I came to this school.  Yours was the first class I came into.  You were yelling and all excited and stuff.  I thought, ‘Wow, is this how this school is?’  Then I went to the rest of my classes and I was like, awww, where’s the excitement at?”

The passion I brought to teaching stuck with Jordan for nine months, especially when he contrasted it to his other teachers’. Communicating our genuine excitement to our students models for them the lasting value of our content.  Without that enthusiasm, a classroom community may not seem worth building.  With it, students come to class ready to learn, which creates the first condition for a strong community.

Vulnerability.  Around my birthday in early September of each year, I share with my students a song my friend Joey wrote and recorded for me.  About a month after he gave it to me, he passed away.  I play the song for the students and we write, then, the soundtrack of our lives–which song it would be and why.  I write about Joey, my guilt and sadness over his suicide, how I slept with the lights on for months after his death.

Chelsea recently told me that at first, she wasn’t quite sure about me.  “Then you wrote that piece with us about your friend Joey, and that’s when I started to think differently about you.”  Modeling my vulnerability with my students encouraged them to do the same–they began to write about topics they once considered very private, and to share their writing in small groups, which I rotate monthly.

Sharing this story with my students, crafting and refining it alongside them, modeled for them not just vulnerability, but the writing process when it relates to a difficult subject.  I became, in their eyes, not just a model writer–but a model thinker, with emotions and difficult memories just like them.  Shifting from not just an English geek to a real human is the second condition for a strong community.

Guts.  This spring, I had a student teacher for eight weeks.  When she left, state testing began almost immediately.  After those two lengthy periods of disruption to our established routine, my students were sluggish and disinterested–frequently unprepared for class, slacking off on their reading, unenthused about their final multigenre projects.

Then, I shared with them my own multigenre piece for this year, about the miscarriage I suffered on Mother’s Day.  As I showed them my writing, the classroom became eerily quiet.  The stillness and silence was deafening.  After lots of hugging and passing around of tissues, the students worked with energy and reverence on their own writing once again.  Their enthusiasm was back.

“I thought it was cool that you would put that out there for the students to know,” Madison told me the next morning. “I was shocked that you wrote about it.”  The fact that I not only shared such a tough subject with them, but had the guts to write about it, was powerful.  This gave many students the boost of confidence they needed to confront a difficult issue and create beautiful writing about it–the third condition for keeping that sense of community strong right up to June.

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Two of my funniest students, Troy and Logan, smirk at me over lunch.

Humor.  We’re not morose all the time–we have lots of fun.  Whether it’s a humorous booktalk, a funny poem, or just a celebration of a student’s silliness, there is lots of laughter in our classroom.

A small whiteboard on one wall of our classroom is full of quotes that have made us laugh.  A word like “clementime” can crack us all up, remembering when Troy bemoaned the book Columbine‘s length but accidentally said, “Oh boy, Clementine, here we go.”  Or “overalls,” which calls to mind Kristen’s claim that “I woke up, put on my overalls, and everything just got really weird.”  These simple one-word phrases memorialized on the whiteboard can bring a smile to our faces when we need a lift, and remind me that my students aren’t just learners–they’re people, and pretty darn cool ones, too.

Talk.  Talk is such a foundation of workshop, but it’s important to talk outside of conferences, small groups, or minilessons.  Isaac, a student who has struggled with academic success in the past, has been sitting in my room during his lunch period all this month, working on his multigenre paper.  He chats at me as he writes, asking whatever questions come to mind, writing-related or not.  As a result, he is soaring.

“This is probably the first project in school I’ve ever worked this hard on,” Isaac keeps telling me. “This project is so awesome.”  I told our principal how hard he’d been working lately, and he complimented Isaac when he saw him in the hall.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe teachers talk about students outside of class!” Isaac exclaimed later.  I could tell by his little smile that he was secretly pleased that we had said nice things about him.  Talk has an impact far beyond its transient initial utterance.

Passion, vulnerability, guts, humor, and talk–all year long–make for a beautiful classroom community I’ll enjoy ending this year with.  What do you do to keep your learners unified?

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