A What-to-Read Conference: Books on Bullying

Many of my reading conferences happen at the bookshelf, as students finish one book and begin the search for another.  Here’s one example I just can’t stop thinking about.

Yesterday, a former student of mine came down to my room to borrow a book.  This particular student didn’t start out as a reader, so I was really excited to see him seeking reading material independently a year later.

“Do you have Winger?” he asked me.  We walked to the bookshelf and looked for it–all my copies were checked out.

“Why are you interested in Winger?” I asked him.

“Christina told me about it this summer,” he explained.  I smiled–books were still going viral, beyond our classroom community and into the summer months.

“Well, they’re all checked out.  What is it about that book that interested you?”

“The bullying,” he said, looking away.  Bullying?  I was surprised for a moment that this particular student was curious about bullying–he was a popular kid.  He drove a cool car, had a boisterous and charismatic personality, and had a trail of lovesick girls whose eyes followed his every move.  But then my surprise faded–all high school students, no matter how popular, confident, or smart they seem, struggle with their peers’ meanness.

I had to decide–what do I teach into here?  This student as a reader, or as a vulnerable teen?  I am no longer his teacher–so I don’t have to teach him as a reader, right?

Wrong.  I chose to treat this as a reading conference…but in doing so, I knew I was giving this student the tools to deal with the issue of bullying.

411MJMpTseL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I began to suggest alternate books about bullying, and I promised him that I’d set Winger aside for him when it was returned.  He ended up leaving with Thirteen Reasons Why, but I also suggested Nineteen MinutesYaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Truth About Alice, Speak, Wonder, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Universe, and By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead. 

I knew that when that student finished Thirteen Reasons Why, he’d be back.  I knew that I could guide him toward more books about this issue he was curious about, and that our future conferences could help him climb a reading ladder about bullying.

“Reading ladders take students from one level of reading to the next logical level…We can help them stretch as readers by showing them books that mirror what they already like but that…will challenge them more,” says Teri Lesesne in Reading Ladders.  By continuing to guide this student toward more complex books about the same issue, not only would I be helping him to grow as a reader, I would be offering him more titles that could help shed more light on the difficult issue of bullying.

Penny Kittle is fond of saying “reading saves lives.”  My own classroom library is emblazoned with the quote “We read to know that we are not alone.”  This student was seeking salvation, solace, and information in books.  He wanted to know that he wasn’t the only one feeling the way he felt, and he hoped to find a story that showed him a triumph over bullying was possible.  That he sought this guidance in a library shows the power of teaching readers…not books.

How to Respond to All Writers–Students and Professionals Alike

In a workshop classroom, all authors are mentors.  They are teachers of the craft of writing, and the foundation of the workshop model is built on acknowledging and celebrating them as such.  All writers are apprentices of other writers–Stephen King notes this in On Writing, Katie Wood Ray points this out in Wondrous Words, and Penny Kittle champions this in Write Beside Them.

This week, we’ve practiced treating two types of writers as mentors in our classroom–published authors and student writers.

Once we set up our writer’s notebooks, we began filling them with all things personal to us.  Heart maps, important photos, our hands, lifelines, reading histories, and more.  Then, we turned to adding the words of other writers.

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My writing atop Jacqueline Woodson’s

I wanted to show students the power of other writers’ words.  I wanted to teach them to read poetry not to “torture a confession out of it…to find out what it really means,” as Billy Collins writes, but to celebrate the act of simply reading that poem.  So, we glued in an excerpt from Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming.  I modeled for students how to respond to Jacqueline as a real writer, to notice and note her craft moves, to be inspired by her ideas and write more about our own feelings on those topics.  We wrote atop her poem, prioritizing our responses, reactions, and ideas rather than some analysis or “dulling down” of her meaning.  Responding personally and authentically to published authors will become an important part of our daily routine in our writer’s workshop.

I invited students to enter into a written dialogue with the authors we read.  So, as I settled down this weekend to begin reading a tall pile of student writing that had been turned in, I knew I had to walk the talk, as Amy always reminds me I must.  I ask students to treat authors as real people worthy of critical response, so why would I treat my student writers any differently?  I’ve always struggled with how to grade/evaluate/respond to student writing, but I’m thinking about it in a new way this year.  I just want to have conversations with my students about their writing, whether it’s in the form of a writing conference or in a weekend session with a stack of papers.  I know that when these conversations occur, student growth will follow.  In the excellent Portfolio Portraits, edited by Don Graves and Bonnie Sunstein, Linda Rief writes in an essay IMG_9248titled “Finding the value in Evaluation:”

I have discovered that students know themselves as learners better than anyone else.  They set goals for themselves and judge how well they reach those goals.  They thoughtfully and honestly evaluate their own learning with far more detail and introspection than I thought possible.  Ultimately, they show me who they are as readers, writers, thinkers, and human beings.

My thinking aligns with Linda’s.  When I remove myself from the role of “grader” or “evaluator,” I become an authentic reader of my students’ writing.  I invite students to assess their own writing, which in the words of Linda Rief “shows the value in evaluation.”

So this weekend, I read my students’ writing like I read books.  I noted beautiful lines they wrote, jotted down spiffy words they harnessed, and responded to thought-provoking ideas I saw them getting at.  I asked them questions, wondered about their meanings, and looked very much forward to reading more of their words in the future.  I will confer with students as I return their papers, and we’ll talk about how they might move forward with some of the topics, ideas, and stories they’d begun in these early writings.

In our classroom, we consider our responses to published writing as important as the writing itself.  The value of reading and writing lies in the interaction between the reader and the words, as Louise Rosenblatt describes.  When I transfer that value from the way I want my students reading writing to the way I want to read my students’ writing, new and important opportunities for student learning occur.

Syllaboom or Syllabust

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Giant conversational Jenga for a first day ice breaker.

The air of an empty classroom vibrates with excitement the days before the first bell rings. Polished floors gleam, new composition notebooks sit stacked evenly, crisp bulletin boards stand brightly against cinderblock walls. The energy feeds over into the freshmen who see my classroom for the first time. This is one of the things I love most about this job—the cyclical process of reinvention, the ability to start fresh and new for both us as teachers and them as students.

I do not start my class with reading the syllabus for this exact reason—syllabi, oftentimes stuffy and long, don’t nurture the charge of possibility. Too often they stifle it. No matter how many times I condense, rewrite, and inject personality into them, between the required plagiarism description and the cell phone policy, I am afraid I come off as a jail warden.

Because of this, I wait until the second day of school to review the syllabus and instead fill my first day with low stakes, community-building activities. Last year I felt pressure to kick off the year with a summative assessment to assess the baseline writing skills of my students. I felt pressure to keep up with my colleagues, so I’d bumped up my plans and jumped straight in the first week. Instead of spending time fostering exploration and growth, I focused on individual final products, forgetting the organic process of building up an environment that praised the formative process.

I focused less on establishing their writer’s notebooks and more on ensuring students had three polished pieces within the first quarter. Number-wise it felt like a success—I could back my curriculum and process with hard numbers; my assessments aligned with many of my colleagues, but my classroom atmosphere lacked the supportive community we had worked so hard to establish the year before.

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

The classroom is ready for our first day of school!

This year I’m returning to my “old” ways—focusing on the need for consistent quickwrites, notebook work, and small group and whole class sharing to promote trusting relationships among my students. Based on Carol Dweck’s research on the growth mindset, I’d rather give my students the time and space to make mistakes and struggle through their writing.  This year, our first day won’t involve immediately reviewing our new standards-based grading policy. It won’t require students to write their first paper by Friday. Instead, our first day will be full of giant conversational Jenga where students simply talk to one another. We’ll learn each other’s names in methods that DO NOT involve finding an adjective that rhymes with our first name. We’ll have workshop time to establish the individuality of our notebooks with collages of paint, pictures, tape, and stickers. We’ll share our favorite reads, listen to spoken word poetry like “What You Will Need in Class Today” by Matthew Foley, write, and speed date with books.

Instead of focusing on the rules, the assessments, the end, we’ll praise the process, the journey, the beginning.

Mini-Lesson Monday: What Will You be Book Talking?

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At the very beginning of the year, I relish in choosing the books that I want to expose students to via Book Talks to hook ’em, spark an interest, or at the very least; have them raise an eyebrow.  With over 3,000 books on our lending library, it can be a daunting and downright overwhelming process for reluctant readers to choose a book to kick off the year. To start their reading journey.  To be brave enough to try something they haven’t before. To simply engage in the process.

Sometimes a mini-lesson is about exploration; such is the case as students are trying to find their way through the minefields of endless books.  While it’s important to educate students on skills and techniques; it’s also just as beneficial to teach them how to authentically explore letting their interest and intrigue guide their process.

So, we pull back and take it slow…

Objectives – Using the language of the Depth of Knowledge Levels: Students will draw from their own interests and personal experiences to predict the literature that will capture their attention and support their literacy growth.  Students will assess their reading fluency and stamina through analyzing their reading rates, commitment to completing books, and data that supports their movement.

Lesson: To kick off the introduction to the library, I choose a few pieces to Book Talk – share an excerpt, a few paragraphs, sometimes a page or two…but nothing too long.  I keep it short.  To keep the energy high and interest levels peaking, I want the process to flow and be completely full with variety.  (After all, at the beginning of the year, I am unfamiliar with who many of my students are as readers.)  I ask students to jot down titles in their Writer’s Notebooks that have caught their attention as to keep them in mind – now or in the future.

Next, we physically tour the library where I expose students to the themes (not genres) that categorize our books.  Fun ones such as:  No Sleep Till Brooklyn (compliments of the Beastie Boys – books on our favorite borough), Behind Barbed Wires (Holocaust affiliated literature), A Day in the Life (stories of all kind)…  Along the way I show students where I grabbed the books that were Book Talked.  This is essential because, if students are interested in a particular piece, this process provides them with a focus.  With so many books to choose from, initially narrowing down their interest to a section or two makes the process manageable…and quite enjoyable.

Once we’ve toured our library, students are given time to explore.  They choose books that have caught their attention.  Eventually, stacks of books are taken off the shelves and brought back to our tables. Students are then given an opportunity to interview their books of choice by having time to explore them – covers, flaps, table of contents, page 107; whatever they are drawn to.

To guide students along in this process I also provide them with The Six Steps to an Effective Book Interview:

1. Jot down the title and author of the book.

2. Study the cover.  Jot down some of your thinking… What do you think this piece may be about?  What do the colors and visuals represent?  Does the cover alone capture your attention?

3. Read the back of the book or the inside flaps.  What is this book about?  What is intriguing or off-putting about this book?  What questions do you have?

4. Open the book to any page of your choosing.  Read three consecutive pages.  

5. What do you foresee being an obstacle when reading this book? (Language, vocabulary, author’s point of view, etc.)

6. Are you interested in reading this book either now or in the future? Will it be going on your Next-to-Read List?  Explain your rationale.

In the meantime, I am conferring with students all over the room: the ones at the library scoping things out, students who seem a bit disengaged, those who have chosen a piece at lightening speed, ones already interacting with The Book Interview and everyone in between.  There becomes a buzz in the room which signifies the learning process has begun!

Before class rounds an end, I ask students to bring at least one book home with them and read for 45 minutes.  This is a process.  Some students are psyched about their choosings and others are disappointed that they didn’t find ‘the one’.  We talk it through.  It’s imperative for each student to leave with literature, yet we also leave with an understanding that if it does not feel like a right fit after they’ve had time outside of class to ‘play with it’, then we go back to the drawing board again tomorrow – knowing just a bit more about why it wasn’t the one. And the cycle of collecting data on students’ interests and needs commences.

Follow-Up: As the year progresses and students and I learn collectively what they enjoy reading (and what they are willing to be challenged by), Book Talks become more tailored to student interest. Sometimes they are done with specific students in mind, other times they are presented based on big ideas/themes (love, injustice, the power to overcome, etc.).

The beauty of this process is that although Book Talks remain a constant all year, students do not bore of them; every day they are different.  And, students become more in-tune with what they enjoy, are curious about, want to challenge themselves with, etc.  Typically by mid-year, students are no longer needing to use the The Book Interview because, by that point, it has become an innate part of their process.

What initial strategies do you instill in your classroom to make the rest of the year’s learning fruitful?

#FridayReads: Some of the Classics

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Alice in Wonderland pop-up book – full with rich colors, adventure, and 3D visuals.

“Oh, one of your students is reading Alice in Wonderland?!  I love that.  Are they captivated by it?  I wrote my entire master’s thesis on that piece.”

Last year, a colleague of mine was through the roof to hear about some of the children’s classics that my students were engaging in:  E.B. White’s pieces, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, The Tao of Pooh, Alice in Wonderland – which holds a very special place in her heart.  But, for some reason students across the board have been guided away from these treasures.  Why are we steering them away from the simplicity of tapping into their inner nostalgia, re-entering times in their lives where there was quiet innocence and a simplicity that innately dissipates as we mature?

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In between reading The Classroom and The Cell and I Am Malala, this young man enjoyed the layered themes of a charming classic.

Charlotte’s Web was just as powerful for me as a thirty-something adult as it was as a seven-year-old little girl.  The latter was an opportunity to finish a chapter book full with robust (animal) characters and an opportunity to connect with Fern, the moralist. The former was a rich experience as I explored the theme of love, relationships, sacrifice, and an understanding of death (as I had recently lost my grandmother).

One of the important elements of the Readers Writers Workshop model is the idea of roller coaster reading. As Penny Kittle adequately puts it; adults read books on all different levels based on interest – students deserve the same.

I couldn’t agree more.

Think back to a time you dedicated your reading to a piece that was difficult – for you – for whatever reasons affiliated with that experience.  Often times, we decide to ‘take it easy’ once we’ve conquered a book of that caliber.  We’ll play with levels and genres and graphic novels and page numbers…and any other factors that play into our decision making.  But, we typically veer from the intensity.

Until we’re ready to try again.  And, we typically are ready at some point because we experienced the pride that comes with such a challenge.  It just may not be our next book…or the one after that…  But, we will find ourselves back there because it’s important to do so.  Students will too.

Roller Coaster Reading : All readers should have the luxury to go on such a ride!

Roller Coaster Reading : All readers should have the luxury to go on such a ride!

And while there is the push for lexile reading, and all of the other ways to monitor student reading, we must let students read what their souls ache for.  Whether it be luxuriating in a time of childhood innocence or challenging their vocabulary with a much more difficult piece.  When we provide space for students to explore (and yes, children’s books included) students find the roller coaster that suits them – a bit of scare and intrigue balanced with comfort and adventure.

A wonderful way to provide students the opportunity to monitor such reading is through the creation of a Reading Ladder.  (Scroll down to Q1 and Q3 to find information on how to create ladders and see examples.)  Simply, by reading various books on differing levels, students have the opportunity to review their learning, progress, fluency, and stamina…all the while having choice.

This year, I intend to watch our I’ll Always Be A Kid shelf grow as more and more students find themselves drawn to some of the classics from their childhood.  A handful of students love this shelf because they reminisce about reading (or having that book read to them) while others are exploring children’s literature for the first time.  Our adolescent parents are intrigued as they scope for titles that they want to bring home to read to their own little ones – because passing on the gift of literacy is priceless.  Regardless of the rationale, students end up falling in love with the magic.

What hesitations or fears surface when thinking about high school students reading children’s literature?

What is it About Being Mean?

In the past three days I’ve heard two different stories from teachers who are already in high-stress because of encounters with co-workers. What?!

School started just this past Monday. Four days and we’re already mean?

What is is about some people who think they can speak their minds at the expense of being polite, kind, civil even? Isn’t teaching hard enough without having to deal with negative ninnies and downright mean people?

My mother always told me:  “It is the people who are the hardest to love who need it the most.” I believe this is true. Hurt, anger, and fear often manifest as aggressive, catty, spiteful behavior. “A root’s always poking holes in the cellar door.” I get that.

Many teachers who embrace the workshop model do so alone. They are the only teachers on their campuses who’ve “swallowed the Kool aid” and become “too idealistic for [their] own good.”

“You’re not going to have any better success with those kids that anyone else.”

I’ve heard my fair share, and I am fairly certain I’ve heard only a drop of a giant bucket of behind-my-back critiques. So it goes.

“You’re nasty and you’re loud,
you’re mean enough for two,
If I could be a cloud,
I’d rain all day on you.”
Jack Prelutsky

Today I am wondering:  How do we deal with colleagues who are mean, or bossy, or just plain rude? How do we smile with sincerity and stand steadfast in the face of criticism and disdain?

Please join the conversation. What do you do?

I’m Teaching Writing to the Whole 5th Grade — Now What?!

I received this note in a Facebook message:  I had big changes in my classroom assignment this year… moved from 2nd grade to 5th… turns out… after getting there I got the assignment of teaching writing to the entire 5th grade…. not what I really signed up for…. I have not only NEVER formally taught writing (as a process) beyond complete sentences… and moving toward paragraphs…. but I never even had a class in in it in college….. any suggestions on where to start and where to go with it? I will have 4 units of 12 days each during the year with each of the 5th grade classes….. suggestions?

Say you had to analyze the tone, what adjective would you use? concerned? riled? desperate? beseeching?

Let’s look at the clues:  “big changes,” “turns out,” “entire,” “not what I really signed up for,” “NEVER,” and all those “…..”

I could write an entire post on why the kind of changes this teacher has had thrust upon her is so disrespectful to her as an educator, as a professional. But I won’t. I just needed to say that.

Of course, I answered, and I will offer support and help any way I can. You would, too.

Maybe others have similar experiences and are new at teaching writing. Here’s how I answered my friend:

Yes, I have suggestions! Haha. Tons of them. You know I teach AP Language and Composition, right? Just writeThat’s juniors in high school, but good writing is good writing. Your instruction with your 5th graders can look very similar to mine. (And I hope it will.)

Here’s the non-negotiables in my writing class:

Writer’s notebooks. I use the black composition notebooks. Students cover them, personalize them, and make them mean something other than just a notebook for school. We write in them every day as a way to explore our thinking. I might give a prompt, or read a poem, or watch a news clip…whatever, and then I ask students to think and respond. These quickwrites become places to mine for ideas for topics we might develop into more formal pieces. Writer’s notebooks are required and loved in writing classes where students have choice and autonomy, two important components of effective writing instruction.

Mentor Texts. Mentors are texts that look like the writing I want students to practice. For example, if we are writing narrative, I want students to read good narrative writing. If we are writing book reviews, we need to study the structure of book reviews, etc. The authors of these mentors become our “writing coaches.” We study the moves the writers make, and then we try to make those moves in our own writing. Students learn from good models. They do not learn from poor, fix-the-grammar-and-punctuation worksheets or anything of that ilk. Research on that is plentiful.

Choice. When students have choice in the topics they write about, they are more apt to take ownership and care about their writing. Just like you and me — we do not want told what books we have to read, TV shows we have to watch, or essays we must write that show we learned something from pd. Topics matter so much to the effort students will put into their writing. We have to let students choose what they want to spend their time focusing on. Sometimes we need to nudge them. Sometimes we need to help them narrow the topic. But they need to always have a choice if we want to really teach them anything about writing. Save the formal test-like prompts for practice after students learn how to mine for ideas and develop those ideas in writing they want to do. Test writing can serve as a genre in itself later.

Time. Schedule time within the school day for kids to write. Let them know you are there to help. When they write with us, 1) we know they are writing and not a friend or parent, 2) we see their process and know where the struggles are.

Conferences. Meet with writers throughout the writing process, beginning, middle, and end. Ask questions that provoke their thinking. Let them talk about their ideas. Avoid giving advice, rather validate the students’ ideas and speak to them as writers. (Focus on the writer and his needs over the writing and what it needs — avoid the red pen at all costs.)

Modeling. Write in front of your students. This is probably the most effective instructional tool you have. Students need to see the messiness of the writing process. They need to know it is hard — even for a teacher. I try to write every assignment I ask my students to write. I start writing in front of them and let them see my thinking, my errors, my revision, my re-organization, all of it. Too many student writers think they should be able to write well in a one shot in the dark deal. That’s why they refuse to revise. We have to show them that writing is difficult and confusing and time consuming. We have to give them opportunities to see the struggle, so we can convince them that the work is worth it when we’ve finally been able to say what we want and need to say in our writing.

Talking. “Writing floats on a sea of talk,” I heard Penny Kittle say. Talk with students about their ideas, their process, their everything concerning writing. Encourage them to talk with one another. Talk and Write. Read and Talk and Write. Talking works to stimulate thinking and provoke the pen to action.

Celebrating. Feedback matters, even at the sentence level. Invite students to share their writing. This can be a sentence or a complete piece. Celebrating good writing along the way is a more effective feedback tool than a grade at the end of publication. Whips Around the Room that invite all students to share a favorite sentence or passage, Author’s Chairs that invite students to read a best draft, Posting on Blogs and inviting students to read one another’s work and leave comments, are all ways to celebrate writing — and help students understand the importance of audience.
Some of my favorite RESOURCES:

National Writing Project — Resources page

Read Write Reflect — Katherine  Sokolowski’s blog — the reflective practices inside a 5th grade classroom

The Nerdy Book Club — a community of readers (and teachers of readers) — read about books, reading, writing, and more!

Two Writing Teachers blog — more tips on teaching young writers that you can digest in one sitting

Moving Writers blog — Rachel and Allison show they are the best mentor text finders on the planet

And of course, my own blog: Three Teachers Talk where we write about Readers and Writers Workshop

Lucy Calkins quoteBOOKS you will consider life savers:

In the Middle by Nancie Atwell

Read Write Teach by Linda Reif
Write Beside Them by Penny Kittle

And I haven’t read this one yet, but who doesn’t want to be unstoppable? The Unstoppable Writing Teacher by Colleen Cruz
I imagine you are overwhelmed. No, I cannot really imagine. I do know that you are smart though, and you love children and teaching. You will do a wonderful job inspiring students to write — that is half the battle.

The learning comes from doing. Get your students writing. The more they write the better they will write. I see it every year.

Best blessings,

Amy

Did I leave anything out? What advice do you have for this emerging writing teacher?

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

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