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Teaching satire – the real thing

2 Dec

Before a teacher, especially a middle-school or high-school instructor, sits down to plan a course, he or she should ask the question “What can I reasonably expect that students will retain from this course after a decade?” – Alfie Kohn from With Rigor for All by Carol Jago

What do we want students to know ten years from now? In the past as my junior English classes began Huck Finn, I have always mentioned that Mark Twain intended for his work to be a satire. Ok, let’s move on.

At least that’s what it felt like. Will my students have an understanding of satire that they will remember in the future and can apply to their lives? Not unless they had a teacher who did a better job than I did! So this year we did something a little different.

The first step was to listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast on satire. As students listened, they were to use the following questions to guide them: What is satire? When does satire work? Click on the picture below to check out the podcast.

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Short version: we use satire to make fun of people’s stupidity in politics and current events, but the quality of satire, especially in the United States, has greatly deteriorated into comedians going for the laugh over proving their point. In other countries this is not the case; satire is pointed and thought provoking.

As Gladwell addresses, Tina Fey’s role as Sarah Palin is one of our most famous memories of political satire. We might even remember the fake Palin better than we remember the real one.

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Saturday Night Live is our most well-known criticizer of politics, but, as explored in the podcast, there is far too much “going for the joke.” In a recent Time article, “SNL Actor Michael Che Agrees With Donald Trump That Show Is ‘One-Sided,’” Michael Che responds to Donald Trump’s criticisms with exactly what our class was looking for.

“But comedy should take both sides,” he said. “No matter who is in power, we should be making fun of them.”

Exactly the problem, and my students were quickly able to see it. While other countries are using satire to accomplish a goal, one of our most-watched satirical programs is making sure we can make fun of everyone.

We then applied our new understandings about satire to the SNL skit on the third presidential debate. Was this an example of satire to prove a point, or was this simply a collection of goofs on both candidates intended to get the laughs?

Armed with our knowledge with what satire truly is, my hope is that is much easier for my students to connect this idea to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and to their own lives. Who knows, maybe even for ten years!

Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now

16 Sep

YES!!!

When a student chooses a book over Netflix, it’s a victory. When a student tries to read straight through from before the bell rings through my instructions, and into reading time, it’s a victory. And when a student is already on his fourth book just 15 days into the school year, it is a huge victory!

For the past two years in my classroom we read on Mondays. It was a great way to start the week, give students time to read for pleasure, and build reading stamina. But in the interest of improving, I had to move out of my comfort zone.

This year we are doing it a little differently. Each class period starts with 10 minutes of reading. Being the time protestor that I am, there are days when we go 12. I admit it. But I do my best to stick to a quick book talk to start class (2-3 minutes), independent reading (10 minutes), then our instruction for the day. The shift was a little different for students right away, especially those who had been expecting full reading days, but it seems like we have gotten ourselves into a nice groove now.

Here’s what I notice:

  1. I never have to wake anyone up. We start first period at 8:00 am, and there were times when students would fall asleep. I get it. It is a lot to ask of a 17-year-old kid to be awake enough and engaged enough to read for 40 minutes at the beginning of a day on only a few hours of sleep. This problem is no more. I once heard someone say, “You can do anything for 10 minutes.” Even students who see themselves as nonreaders. My hope is that I can even trick a few students into becoming readers through these painless reading sessions.
  2. The pace of class is much faster. Everything we do has to be done with a sense of urgency. Instead of taking an entire hour to write, we have to get things done quicker. Instead of me babbling on a tangent, I have to be focused and know where we need to get to during the class. One piece of feedback I got in my first year teaching high school English was that the pace needed to increase. I finally feel like I have done it.
  3. It is not as hard to get into a book for a short time. To start the year I have been reading at the same time as students. I was a little concerned after the first class because I had a little trouble settling in and getting going. This went away after a few sessions. Now when we get to reading, the room is quiet within a few seconds and everyone is reading. They know that there is only 10 minutes, so it isn’t nearly as cool to waste time now.
  4. When I begin conferencing with students in the next few weeks, I will be forced to be focused with my questions and discussions. The goal will be to get to 3 students each day. My note-taking sills will need to be sharp so that I am prepared and make sure each conference builds on the previous one.
  5. Having a book talk each day right when the bell rings gives students insight to the possibilities that are out there. It is building this idea that books are important enough to talk about every single day.

My hope is that by reading every day our class builds a culture that is centered around reading and a celebration of books. When I over heard a junior girl say, “Instead of watching Netflix, I just read now,” I have to say, I felt pretty good about the culture we have here in the basement.

Penny Kittle – my newest hero

10 Aug

I could make some excuses about my blog like becoming a father, but let’s just get past that part for now.

What better than a great conference experience to get me back to blogging? The North Dakota Council of Teachers of English Conference did it again this year. After a great day with Kelly Gallagher in 2014, Penny Kittle lived up to the already-raised bar.

Back to the fatherhood part. I’m not sure that I can blame becoming a dad, but I seem to be a little more emotional than I remember myself being. I’ve noticed myself becoming a little more invested in characters in books. I won’t go into the details, but one drive to work in the morning involved the Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close audiobook, peanut butter toast, and tears.

But I didn’t expect to feel what I felt listening to Penny Kittle talk about books! What she had to say and lives that have been changed in her classroom are truly inspiring.

I’ve always taken pride in getting students to read. I love telling a student,”There is no such thing as someone who hates to read; it is just someone who hasn’t found the right book yet.” I can be better. And Penny Kittle has helped me see why I need to be better and how I can be better.

I’ll take a few of my favorite quotes from Penny Kittle and respond with SOMETHING HERE

200 pages per week is the average amount of reading needed for a freshman in college to succeed.

Can any of us say that we are building the reading stamina needed for college success, let alone survival? She goes on to say that more prestigious universities, Ivy League colleges for example, require 600 pages for their freshmen. When we ask students to read the four required novels for an English class, we are telling our students that that’s what is needed for success. Wrong message.

Professors didn’t care whether all students read any particular books, only that they read a lot so they would have a variety of experiences to draw on and the ability to handle the volume of reading expected in college. (Book Love)

If kids have no reading life, we are pushing them to be part of the 50% of kids who drop out after their freshman year of college.

Now that we know why we must help our students become readers, let’s talk about the emotional part of the whole thing. The joy and love that come with the experience of books is where we develop life-long learners and readers.

Small wins test implicit theories about resistance and opportunity and uncover resources and barriers that were previously invisible – Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit

When we see our students start reading, and I can picture some of my favorite success stories…let me take a second to keep my emotions in check, we see them overcome something that they thought was not in their realm of possibilities. They start to see themselves as readers, start to talk about books with friends, and start to spread the love! Can you tell that I’m slightly excited about the reading that I am going to see in my classroom next year?

Stacks of books and stories about overcoming the fear of books. I can’t wait. So how do we do it?

Help students develop a plan for their reading. Every student needs a plan for their reading. My middle school students always had this, but when I made the switch to high school, I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I didn’t require it. It was one of those things that I didn’t think my students would need. I saw such a huge difference when kids finished a book. There was too much time spent milling around the book shelves and never ending up with a great book. I’m debating the merits of goodreads.com or just good old pen and paper as the tool for planning what students will read next.

Book talks. Every. Single. Day.

Give students books that they feel just have to be recorded on that “Next” page. I will be committing to this idea that we should be talking about great books all the time. And if there is a teacher that doesn’t think that sounds like a community that they want to create, I’m guessing they already quit reading this post by now.

Reading conferences every day as a way to push readers as well as to support them. We can help students become better readers while they read something that they truly care about. I will not be so arrogant as to say that the only way a student can learn about revenge is by reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Meet students where they are and help them develop their thinking.

And my last big takeaway from Book Love, and possibly the most daunting, is to reorganize my classroom library. I’m lucky enough to have four big bookcases stuffed full of great books (with stacks piling up on top of them even). I have some beautiful signs labeling the genres to make it easy to find books. After hearing how Penny Kittle has her library organized, I started to think about how my system makes it easy for me to find books. Kids don’t say, “Hmmm I’m in the mood for some great realistic fiction. Let’s see… Here we have The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, or maybe Hoot by Carl Hiasson right next to that. Those books have nothing in common besides the fact that they take place in our contemporary world.

I plan to organize my classroom library by subject. Interested in war? We have that section. Interested in love? Over here. Life in high school? The World? Death and dying? LGBTQ? Comedians? Athletes? Prisoners? History? Poetry? Understanding differences? We have just what you’re looking for.

A book isn’t rigorous if students aren’t reading it.

If students do not read the assigned texts, nothing important is happening in your lit classroom.

Here’s a list of books that I frantically typed when I decided it would be too slow to try to purchase them on Amazon during the keynote. These books are going to get kids reading, not fake reading. I left the list unedited to let you judge my speed-typing skills:

Butter, Alabama Moon, Dirt Road Home, Werewolf, The Monster Calls, Reality Boy, The Girl Who Could, Please Ignore Very Dietz, Beserck, Hive, Fascinating Pathetic LIfe, BEfore I die, Thank you for your service, No easy day, The good soldier, The Forever War, Soldier Dogs, REdeployment, The Yellow Birds, Bitter End, The Unschooled Mind, Nothing to Envy, I was Here, Love leatters to the dead, Before I fall, Held Stil, Me EArl Dying girl, My Heart and Other Black Holes, Memoirs of a teenage amnesiac, Lost in the Meritocracy, One Amazing Thing, Juvenile in Justice (pictures), Prisoners – Wally Lamb Women of york, Hole in my life, a place to stand, last chance in texas, Homeboyz, Period 8, The Reason I Jump, Wake Fade and Gone trilogy, Winger, Food Girls and other things I can’t Have, Stick by Andrew Smith, The Sky is Everywhere, LIttle Bee, Best Night of my pathetic life, Above the Dreamless Dead

Book love. It’s a surprisingly emotional topic!

Oh yeah, and we even got to have lunch with Mrs. Kittle.

Oh yeah, and we even got to have lunch with Mrs. Kittle.

Essentially speaking

7 Oct

Wow, time sure does go by fast! Apparently I’m already a month into this whole high school thing. At least that’s what they tell me.

Recently we had a chance, as English teachers, to examine all of the secondary English curriculum maps. One thing stood out, well I guess we better say that two things stood out. The first point was that English teachers are protective. Don’t you dare take my books to that grade level! Just kidding (sort of).

But the main point, at least in my eyes, was that an essential question framing a unit makes a huge difference in how that unit is perceived. I have written about Jeffrey Wilhelm before, but his views on essential questions are starting to spread throughout English teachers in our district because of our work last week.

Essential questions must:

  • Get to the heart of the discipline
  • Be compelling and “sexy” in order to capture the students’ attention
  • Not be able to be answered by Googling it

As part of the seventh grade team of teachers who worked on creating essential questions last year, I was proud to hear the chatter of those great questions. Although using the word “sexy” when describing an English lesson might sound ridiculous to some (we almost had to use earmuffs at one point), it is true! How can we be edgy enough to motivate our students to learn?

Here are the unit titles or essential questions that we came up with:

  • How much control do I have over who I am?
  • What would I give up to be free?
  • How can I get people to do what I want?
  • How can I be a hero?

All important to students’ lives, unanswerable through a Google search, and lead students to important parts of English.

New to the tenth and eleventh grade curriculums (curricula? Apparently they are both correct. Thank you, dictionary.com.), I am trying to create some essential questions that are even more powerful and important to my students’ lives. Here is what I have for quarter one.

In American Lit, my first unit is shaped around the question “What power does a label have over me?” We have looked at labels through multiple This I Believe essays dealing with labels. This week we read about the controversy about yoga pants in a local North Dakota school and how the students were shown a clip of Pretty Woman – some pretty interesting labels were being applied to both males and females there – and a blogger’s response to the dress code. And we are moving towards The Scarlet Letter, one of the most famous labels of all. Supporting that will be a look at a girl named Jada who was raped, photographed, and became a hashtag joke on Twitter. Rather than hide in shame Jada stood up for herself and many others and gained national support. Talk about taking over a label!

Creating a unit like this is fun to teach! When I want to be a student in my classroom, and I get fired up about making a connection from a supporting text to a larger piece, it tells me that something great is going to come of it. It also gives me focus in looking for nonfiction articles to support the larger texts.

The hardest part of essential questions is coming up with them! What matters to students right now? What do you know will get their attention?

Challenge yourself to be more engaging in your themes and units. Your student engagement will show you that it was worth it.

What Creating Innovators means for me

21 Apr

After finishing Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner for a book study, I was asked to write a reflection on ways I would apply the idea of teaching students to be innovative to my teaching practices. I also just read an interesting piece of advice about saving your keystrokes and posting to your blog instead of sending an email for things like this. So hcreating-innovatorsere is what stood out to me as I thought about teaching innovators in my English class:

First and foremost, I want to create even more authentic opportunities for my students. I currently blog with my students, but even that lacks authenticity because I am asking them to do it. They don’t feel like they have to have it in order to succeed or to accomplish something. There needs to be a problem or a question that they are trying to solve. “How can I make money with this blog?” or something like that. This is something that I’m going to keep working on to design a way for my students to possibly collaborate and create a blog with a purpose.

One thing that I already do in class is to create feature articles. These are research articles that follow models from magazines. For next year’s assignment I would like to create a class newsroom with students collaborating to create some type of magazine, either electronic or paper. The students would work as a team to create the content (stories, photographs, etc.), edit, assemble, and publish their work. If I want to add some friendly competition, there could be an ad to a link where students could vote for that group’s publication. This would give the students a chance to see what was most effective in communicating with their peers.

The idea that we have a certain amount of “whimsy” and fun in what we do is important. We are providing a place for students to play with a lot of different parts of their learning. I want to get students to collaborate more often in order to accomplish a goal. And that goal should be one that is created by students. “People who innovate care about what they do, care enough to take a chance, spend extra time, care about people they are working with. I also want them to feel that what they’re doing makes a difference” (p. 215). It is necessary to expose students to the various important things happening in the world if they are going to develop the empathy to want to change them.

Each year we do a Hero Project in my 7th grade classes. This is a fairly structured project where we choose five traits of their hero (someone in the student’s life) and write a paragraph on each of those in addition to the introduction and the conclusion. The project is then turned into a movie and is always successful and enjoyable for students as well as meaningful for parents, the most common recipients of the project as a gift. This year I am going to open it up a little more to my students. I am going to create an example using my grandmother where I interview her and use her voice and film of her to add to my project. It is usually the student reading over the picture of the hero, but the video would make the project go even more in depth.

Meaningful feedback for students is another part of the book that is important. I have played with some different forms of grading thanks to discussions with an English colleague, and using the standards as individual grades on a rubric has helped me to give better feedback to students. Instead of just receiving a letter grade or a percentage, students can see more of what actually made up the grade because I respond to them and point to evidence. This is in addition to the constant feedback during the writing and creating process.

And meaningful feedback should not just be for our students. I have done some videotaping of my teaching, but I want to continue and grow that habit. We do not always find time to reflect as teachers, and when we do it can be inaccurate. Using video is a way that I can analyze myself. It is also a way for teachers to share their successes and strategies. Instead of living in the bubble of our own classroom, let’s get out through the use of technology and see all of the wonderful things happening in our own districts.

Lastly, I truly want to be the educator that students see as passionate and worth being around. I want to push for continued improvement in all areas of teaching and learning. And I want students to feel that I truly cared about them as a person and gave them the tools to be successful in the world.

So I started a book club

26 Mar

As a teacher who is lucky enough to have my students for both 7th and 8th grade English, I am able to watch a roller coaster of reading. Students are too busy to read on their own during sports, indulge in great books all year long, binge for a month at a time, or take the summer off. Who knows what you’re going to get with middle schoolers!

I require a minimum of 30 minutes of reading homework per night, and we also have reading days in class. My goal is that when students leave my class and go to high school that they know themselves as readers, have a plan for what they want to read, and, above all else, love reading.

In order to accomplish this goal I’ve spent most of my career defending my middle school students’ right to read books of their choice, to read on their own, and to read what is of interest to them.

I’m starting to reconsider.

I have an exceptional group of 8th graders this year, and many of them absolutely love to read. But they weren’t reading, at least not like they used to. I heard excuses about being busy with sports or drama or anything else that is important as an 8th grader. The only problem is that these things weren’t taking away from their reading before now.

I started throwing around the idea of a book club to my 8th graders – something completely optional during lunch. Students would choose the book, how much we read, and when we meet. They could even go get dessert if that was the deal breaker!

Well it worked. I have nine of our thirty 8th graders, a gym teacher, and me in my room during lunch at least once a week. We discuss the things that they see in books: characters, plot, questions, and their beliefs. The social aspect of reading is something that we clearly crave like this NYT article explores.

With all of the benefits, the best part is that I now have those students who love to read loving to read again! It is so clear that reading is contagious because now these book club members are checking out more books when they don’t want to get ahead of the book club. Their passion has been reignited!

The way I see it is that I could spend time complaining about my students lack of reading, or I could do something about it.

Mission accomplished.

iPads are the answer, even if they are missing a keyboard

6 Mar

Students writing as they read, jotting down notes on the text, highlighting, and bookmarking. Most teachers would respond with, “Don’t write in the book!” But if we are going to do what we need to do to meet the Common Core, we MUST be writing in the book. Or the iPad more specifically.

Personally, I believe iPads are the way of the future in English education. More and more I see the importance of reading relevant and current nonfiction and being able to annotate and interact with the text, and it seems like the iPad is going to be the best way to do this.

Apple has sold 170 million iPads and counting. The most innovative computer company in the world doesn’t stop there. Apple’s stranglehold on teens’ music/internet/social networking devices is an important focus. If schools want to connect to our students through technology, we need to meet them where they are. Knowledge and information is at the fingertips of our students at all times. iPads are simply the best option to read, annotate, search the web, and view content easily.

Netbooks. The current answer to our technology issue. Students need a way to surf the web, research, and word process in a convenient way. Convenient being a debatable term. Right now it is another thing to lug around school on top of textbooks, notebooks, and the ever-important planner. These limited computers are not the answer to what we need in an English classroom.

Now the iPad isn’t perfect, the biggest complaint about iPads being that they don’t have traditional keyboards. The keyboard is an issue for the teachers, not the students. Most of my kids will choose to type a blog post on their iPod instead of using their netbook.  And if you need more proof, here are some real-world examples where students said, “No thanks,” to keyboards.

“Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” Principals Association, 1815

Although this quote might be slightly embellished, it is partly based on reality. Physical keyboards, like chalkboards, are moving towards the past. As much as teachers feel the need to keep them alive, they are becoming impractical. Our students just don’t like them. Teachers should help students get the chalk dust off their hands if they choose. Keyboards? Make them available, but not required.