Sunday, November 29, 2015

My blog has moved!

Same name, new address:

I started this blog because I recognized that, as an English teacher, I needed to have more of a writing life, a writing presence. I thought the blog would help me develop more of my own writing life as I encouraged my students to develop theirs. I was inconsistent with writing for the blog, though, and I did not have a clear focus as I wrote about education, reading, teaching, and gluten-free food and restaurants. My new blog of the same name will be much more focused. I’ve become increasingly passionate about sharing ways in which teachers can integrate supplemental activities in their classrooms to help students’ well-being and confidence, as well classroom community, while also emphasizing student choice and reflection and connecting to skills. Sound ambitious? It is possible! I look forward to sharing how you can incorporate “Mindful Monday,” “Museday Tuesday,” and “Free-Reading Friday” activities, along with other workshops and mini-lessons, into your classroom routines to promote confidence, mental wellness, and community while helping students further develop their reading, writing, and speaking skills. (If you followed this blog because of the gluten-free tips, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I am keeping this blog up in case I decide to return to that focus in a blog. My Blogger blog would then be focused on gluten-free, allergy-free living.) 

I hope that you will continue to join me on this journey to continually find serenity in the chaos!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Thoughts on "Not Reading" & Ways to Discourage It

The following are thoughts inspired by William J. Broz's May 2011 English Journal article titled "Not Reading: The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Room." In the article, Broz discusses how many of our students choose not to read assigned texts and, instead,  use the strategy of "not reading." He offers ideas about how we actually encourage this strategy, and he provides tips for what we can do to discourage it. 

William J. Broz makes a bold statement when he writes that “students who can read and do not have done nothing important enough to deserve passing grades in our classes” (16). I’m sure that some may view this assertion (and maybe others) as harsh. But isn’t it the truth? If students are not reading and responding to texts, then what are they doing? Obviously we are working on other skills in our classrooms separately from those which are connected with core and choice texts, but reading is still at the heart of an English Language Arts classroom. I fear that some (many?) teachers have come to accept “not reading” as just the way things are. I’ve heard many teachers say that their students just don’t read, but I worry that we are accepting and encouraging this habit of “not reading.” I worry that we’re lowering our expectations. I believe that we need to “behave in class as if [we] expect [students] to be reading the books” (19). As Broz says, “it is what we do as classroom teachers as we set up the invitation to read that suggests to students and later confirms for them that not reading will be a successful strategy” (16).   If we truly believe that reading is essential, we need to plan lessons and activities accordingly. Too many students don’t see reading assignments as having the same weight or value as work they do for other classes. When I’ve asked students why they did not complete a reading assignment, the most common response is that they had other work to do. “So you did the work for your other classes?” I ask them. “I had to” is the common response. If students don’t have to do the reading for our classes, if they don’t see the importance of assigned readings, there’s a problem.
I feel that most of my students have come to realize that not reading is not a viable option. I’m not terribly naïve, though—I’m sure that there are some students who are managing to squeak by here and there without reading. But I have really worked (and continue to work!) to be sure that reading assignments have a purpose and shape the focus of our class discussions and activities. I agree with Broz when he says that “in teaching literature we are teaching reading and interpretative processes, not right answers about a particular book” (16). I have my students do different reading response activities for different works. One of my favorites (which also happens to be a student favorite, too) is a response assignment I call “Talking Points." Talking Points are very similar to Broz’s reader response journals. For each reading assignment, students must have at least four or five talking points. I typically collect the talking points each class they are due. The assignment provides a great way for me to see where students are in terms of their understanding and analysis of the text as we’re reading. I’m able to read and respond to short “snippets” of analysis and gauge student understanding and progress without reading a whole essay. I hardly ever use reading guides—never with IB and very rarely with regular level classes. My regular level classes have completed Talking Points, too. I want to see what students bring to the text, not simply that they can identify certain techniques or plot points that I’ve told them to look for. Can students “not read” and get by on these Talking Points and reader response journal activities? Sure, but it’s harder. And it usually become apparent pretty quickly when students are not reading.
Along with banishing reading guides, I’ve also done away with the typical reading quiz. Thanks to the inspiration of an amazing colleague, I now do what we call “impromptu writes.” Instead of a reading quiz, I’ll pose a question or present a topic for discussion, and students have fifteen to twenty minutes to compose a response based on and supported by their reading. Sometimes the response is open book, and sometimes it’s not. Here’s an impromptu-write prompt my students responded to after reading The Woman Warrior: “Describe the primary struggle Kingston had to overcome, and explain whether or not she was successful.” Impromptu write questions at the end of our study of Chronicle of a Death Foretold included “Which character deserves the most sympathy from the reader and why?” and “Who is to blame for Santiago’s death? Explain” Sometimes I’ll give students a key passage to respond to for an impromptu write. (I use a different prompt for each class.) These writings accomplish a number of things. Once again, I’m able to read a shorter piece of writing and gauge where my students are in terms of understanding and analysis. They provide yet another writing experience in the classroom, and we work on skills such as structuring a response and integrating support with these impromptu writes. Students can’t BS these responses. They might try, but they soon learn that I would much rather they be honest….and do the reading.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making Connections

We talk about helping students make connections to the literature we study, but there are some other connections that are also important.

Today was one of those crazy days. Okay, I know—when you’re a teacher, every day has its own level of craziness. And teachers are always busy. But, still, today was one of those especially busy days when I had a few roles to play. I spent the entire school day in meetings with all the other department chairs around the county, then I headed to my school to work with Speech & Debate Team members for the last bit of their practice, and I ended my day in a class for teachers (“High School Reads Nonfiction”) which is being led by two of my wonderful colleagues. It was a busy day, but it was also productive and enjoyable. When I ran into a couple of students upon returning to school, they asked how my meetings went, and we chatted for a couple of minutes about my day and their time in class. Students on the team asked about my meetings and also said they hoped the class went well this evening.
And, at this point, you’re probably thinking, why is she telling me all of this? I’m not bragging about my activities or complaining about how busy I am, and I’m not bragging about how thoughtful my students can be (although many of them are pretty amazing). When we talk about how we teach literature, we spend a good bit of time discussing how it’s important to make connections, to make lessons relevant to our students’ lives. My interactions with my students today got me thinking about some other connections that are important. It’s essential that we connect with our students. But I don’t believe that it’s enough for us to know what is going on in and around their lives. They also need to see and hear about what is going on in our lives. We all hope that students see us as more than just teachers. We tell them about our pets, children, and hobbies in effort to make this connection with them. Beyond that, though, students should see how we apply what we teach outside of the classroom. They need to see and hear about that connection as well.

I don’t give my students a run-down of all of my meetings and other activities, but I do find ways to make connections during class discussions. When I told my students I would be out today because I would be attending meetings with the other department chairs in the county, they were really interested in the fact that all the chairs got together to talk about things. It gave them a glimpse of a bigger picture for English instruction and education as a whole. Throughout my grad-school years, I expressed enthusiasm for my classes, and I’ve shared my excitement about the nonfiction class I’m taking this semester. Yes, these are more “classroom” examples, but by sharing these experiences, students can see that I’m still learning and seeking opportunities to learn and grow. Students should know that we are learners, too, and it’s great if we can make connections and share what and how we’re learning. When I attend literary events (book festivals, readings, poetry slams), I share tidbits with my students. I share my “choice” reading selections. I’ll find ways to make connections to articles I read in places such as the newspaper or Time magazine and pose questions to the class about the issues. I share how I network with people through Twitter, and I talk about my attempts to keep up with a blog, discussing such things as the writing process and writing for an audience. Again, I do not intend for any of these things to come across as bragging to my students, but I want them to see that what we do and discuss in the English classroom matters beyond the English classroom.

We should, of course, also make connections with what students are doing outside of our classrooms that ties in with what we’re doing in our classrooms. Making these types of connections helps to foster a sense of community, and it also demonstrates a real respect for our students when we open up and share what we’re learning and doing.

Just some musings at the end of a long day J

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Summertime Gluten-Free Goodness--Sugar Cones!

I was absolutely thrilled when I found Joy Cone's Gluten-Free Sugar Cones a couple of weeks ago! My mom, grandparents, and I took a day-trip to Lancaster and stopped at the Shady Maple grocery store. They always carry some different GF items so I like to take a look when we go. And that's when I discovered these sugar cones! Yes, there are other gluten-free cones out there. But these are extra-special because, not only are they gluten-free, but they are also potato-free! ( Note--The cones do contain corn and soy.) On top of celiac disease, I have a plethora of food allergies, including potato. If you're gluten-free, too, you know that this is a horrible combination since so many GF products on the market are made with potato flour/starch. (This is why Bradley and I make all of our own baked goods and bread.) These cones are a delicious treat, and they are wonderful with So Delicious frozen desserts! (Yes, dairy is also on my list of allergies.) 

And it never hurts to write and let a company know how much you appreciate their product!


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Choice Reading--What Students Say

Back in April, I shared my thoughts on the power ofchoice reading. I’ve now gone through the course evaluations and reflections my English 10 students submitted on the last day of class, and I want to share what they said about choice reading. As part of their year-end reflection, students were asked to reflect on their growth over the course of the school year: “How have you grown as a reader, writer, and presenter? What are your goals for continued growth? How has your view of literature developed over the course of the school year?”  Many students wrote about the Choice Reading program. The comments below are actual student statements about reading. If you’re on the fence about starting a Choice Reading program in your classes, I hope that these student comments will inspire you!

One other thought about Choice Reading before the comments---After my initial Choice Reading post, my IB I students asked why they don’t have Choice Reading time. Some of my students follow me on Twitter and saw the post.  I felt so bad when they came to class the next day and asked this question! One of my goals for this coming school year is to work Choice Reading time into my IB classes, too. I guess I assumed that because they were taking IB English, they loved to read and were, therefore, reading on their own. Not true. So many of my IB students are overwhelmed with school work and other activities; they feel like they don’t have time to read anymore. Choice Reading in class would not only be an escape for these students, but it could also encourage them to find time to read outside of school.

And now, what students have to say about Choice Reading:

·         “If I had to choose my favorite time of the school day, I would probably choose the 15 minutes of choice reading we get. It’s a time where I get to shut out the rest of the world and focus on a different one. I haven’t had a time like this since 5th grade and I’ve missed it. This time has allowed me to read and find books I care about and actually want to read. I find that I’ve started staying up past twelve reading and I love it! I have found a new passion and reading has become a big part of my life this year. The more I read the more I want to read more, and my view on literature has grown greatly.”

·         “I am happy that we got the opportunity to have the fifteen minutes to read in the beginning of class every class. I usually get lazy to read on my own volition, but having this reading time motivates me to read.”

·         “I felt like I grew a lot as a reader throughout the year because I read a lot more than I usually do and I actually sort of enjoyed it.”

·         “At the beginning of the year I enjoyed reading but always put it to the wayside to other things, like video games. Later in the year I found myself picking up a book more and more because I now want to read the book.”

·         “Reading has always been something I had enjoyed until last year when we were beginning to be forced into reading certain books. However, when I opened my mind more to realizing that the books they chose for us were not that bad, I got back into reading. Also, this year I have found my favorite author, Sarah Dessen, and many other authors that I have fallen in love with. I think the choice reading during class has been my favorite part of the year and has in a way saved my love for reading.

·         “I’ve grown as a reader by being able to read the first 15 minutes of every class. I never used to read before and since we started with reading every class, I actually like reading a lot. I read in my free time which I never ever used to do.”

·         “I no longer hate the idea of reading. It’s kind of enjoyable now.”

·         “Before this year I hated to read. No, I mean it. I really hated reading….I wasn’t interested. It changed this year…As this year went on, I found that the books we read in class were a little more interesting. Some of them were relatable to me. Then we also had to read free-choice books. I started picking those the old way—by length. But then I stumbled on a book I really enjoyed…I found that I started to like reading somewhat. I still prefer television and movies but I learned that if a book is well written and the subject is interesting to me then I can find enjoyment in it. This is very different than how I thought of books at the beginning of the school year.”

·         “I used to love reading, but didn’t read often. Now I’ve gotten back to frequently reading not because I have to, but because I want to.”

·         “I learned to appreciate books again. The 15 minutes of quiet reading were sometimes the best fifteen minutes of the day. I would often find myself wishing it was more than 15, and I would really get into the reading.”

·         “I have always been a book worm, but this year I started reading a lot more. Normally I stick to books with romance, or books about teenagers, but I really branched out this year. For example, The Help was the first book I read this year that wasn’t about a love story. I still love Nicholas Sparks, but I really wanted to get some diversity in what I was reading. I also became a much faster reader. I am proud of how many books I read this year.”

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Power of Debate

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” –Atticus to Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (Chapter 3)

We know we should consider things from different perspectives in order to gain a more accurate picture of a situation or an issue, but it isn’t always easy to do, is it? More often than not, we nod our heads in agreement with Atticus’s wise words, but, in reality, we stubbornly cling to our own ideas without really considering other perspectives.

Studying literature helps us to see and realize perspectives we may not have ever considered, but the art of debate forces us to truly think about and argue two sides to an issue.

Some Background—Debate in the Classroom
While the members of the Speech & Debate Team prepare cases for a new debate topic every one or two months (depending on whether they compete in Public Forum or Lincoln-Douglas debate), students in my Speech Communications class only prepare for a full, Public Forum debate at the end of the year. When I introduce debate, we do a number of class debate activities, but due to the size of the class, each student only participates in one full-length debate in May. I give students a list of recent PF (Public Forum) and LD (Lincoln-Douglas) debate topics, and they can either select resolutions from that list and/or create their own resolutions. Once students form teams and I determine the debate pairings (which teams will debate each other), the pairs of teams select their debate resolution together from the compiled class list. This May, students debated on a range of topics, from the legalization of marijuana (yes, cliché, I know), to making cigarettes illegal, to stand-your-ground laws, to gay marriage. Since these students only do one debate, I allow them some choice when it comes to their topic, and, depending on the students’ skill and confidence levels, I’m okay with them debating what would be a cliché topic for a persuasive essay.

Students prepare both sides of the debate (affirmative and negative), just like they would in competition, even though they will only argue one side. At first, some of the students are frustrated with what seems like a ton of extra work, but I keep explaining that since they don’t know what side they will be arguing (until the coin toss just before their debate), they must be prepared, and the “extra” preparation helps them to consider opposing arguments for each case. The students are also frustrated with the idea that they may have to argue the side that goes against what they personally think or believe. That, I tell them, is the beauty of debate, and it is also where skill truly comes into play.

Seeing the Power of Debate
After he/she debates, each student writes a reflection on how the debate went, what they would do differently if they had another round of debate, and which side they felt won the debate and why. In these reflections, students share the struggles they had with the debate.

This year, one particular student’s reflection was very insightful and encouraging. This particular student did not have a lot of confidence in his speaking skills all year, and, although he had prepared for his debate, he didn’t seem very excited or confident before the debate began. And then the debate started, and about ten minutes in, he just came alive! I was hearing a lot of holes in the opposing team’s arguments, and, to my pleasant surprise, my not-so-confident student pointed out each hole and provided excellent rebuttal and attack throughout the debate! He was on fire! What I was most impressed with, however, was this student’s reflection. In his reflection, he shared that when the debate started, he knew it was going to be a challenge because he had to argue the affirmative and that side went against his personal beliefs. However, going through the debate, he completely changed his mind and agreed with the affirmative. (Note-The purpose of debate is not to "convert" students to another view. The purpose is to get them to think deeply and critically about two sides of an issue.)  I asked this student about his reflection.

“The debate really made you change your mind?”

“Totally!” He said. “Before the debate, I was always against it. But preparing for and then going through the debate, I realized I didn’t have a good reason as to why. The debate made me realize that I didn’t have an argument at all—just a belief without support. I had never considered the other side before.”

Wow! And the debate topic? The legalization of gay marriage. Now, the topic could have been anything. (Although I do wonder if those who say they are against gay marriage have really thought through their reasoning as this student did through the act of debating the topic.) The point is that the debate made the student consider another view and the one he had held. He truly thought about the issue, analyzed the issue, and, in the end, he knew what he believed and why. He’s not holding to a belief just “because.”  

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Choice Reading--I'm a believer!

This year, I completely revamped my English 10 Choice Reading program. Scratch that--this year, I created a Choice Reading program. Before this school year, I had an expectation and requirement that students would read one "choice" book per quarter, but I did not have any guaranteed built-in time for students to read and work with these choice books. That all changed this school year, thanks to some inspiration from Kelly Gallagher and a friend and colleague of mine, and the results of this new program have been amazing! 

Here are the basics:

  • Students are required to read at least one book of their choice each quarter. (This expectation has not changed.)
  • The first fifteen (15) minutes of every English 10 class is "Choice Book Reading" time. Right after I greet the class with "good morning" or "good afternoon," we all settle in with our choice books and I start the timer for 15 minutes. ( Note: We all read our choice books. I read, too!) Students must read their choice book during this reading time, not the required reading text we're studying as a class. I started the 15-minutes of choice reading on the first day of school (we all read a short story that day since I knew that not everyone would have a book), and I have stuck with it despite schedule changes, shortened class periods due to late openings, etc. Consistency is key! It would be too easy to find reasons why we "can't" fit it in the schedule. The reality is that it is just as essential as any other activity we do in class.  
  • Within the first couple of weeks of school, our class took a trip down to the library where the librarian gave book talks and had them complete an activity which involved exploring different books. Some students found their 1st quarter Choice Book on this library visit.
  • Each quarter, students complete a creative assignment and present their book and project to the class. The first quarter project was a book review, the second quarter was a bookmark project, and third quarter was a choice between a bookmark (because it was quite popular), a poster for a movie adaptation, or a soundtrack for the book. Regardless of the activity, students discuss key motifs and themes as part of their presentation, and they share a key passage from the text. All of the activities require more thought and analysis than mere plot summary.

the choice reading bookshelf in my classroom

The collection has grown a bit since I took this photo a couple of months ago. The bookshelf is now overflowing and I have an basket of books that sits beside the shelf, and some additional books are on one shelf of another bookshelf in the room. At the beginning of the school year, I asked for donations from friends and family. (Thanks to all who donated!) I've brought in books from our bookshelves at home, and some of the books are from the Choice Book Room that our English Department is blessed to have. I also pick up books from the bargain section at Barnes and Noble from time to time and purchase some from Amazon, especially when students share a title that becomes very popular in the class.

Here are some of the results of this Choice Reading program:
  • Although they are only required to read one book each quarter, the majority of my students are reading several books each quarter. I have one student who checks a new one out at least every other class! Some students are developing a love of reading while others are rediscovering this love that had become lost in the craziness of their teenage lives. Students are learning which genres and authors they like. Of course, I do have a few students who do not really enjoy the gift of fifteen minutes of reading each class, but the vast majority do.
  • Since the students present their books and projects each quarter, they are also working on their presentation skills. And since I videotape each presentation and students watch and reflect on these presentations, their public speaking skills are continuing to improve.
  • My students love talking about their books! They enjoy sharing their thoughts about the books, and they frequently read books that other students have recommended. Books tend to trickle through the class and then students have discussions about these common texts.
  • The students ask me about what I'm reading, and they love to suggest titles. A few months ago, when I added Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to the choice bookshelf and told them a bit about the novel, several students recommended that I read Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life because they thought I would find some similarities. That YA novel became my next choice book, and the students loved the fact that I read their recommended title.
  • My students are more open to the required reading in class, and they are making more connections between texts.
  • My students' vocabulary skills are improving, as are their discussions about assigned readings.
some of the popular titles in my classes right now

Here are my three favorite Choice Reading moments from this school year thus far:
  • When the timer goes off at the end of fifteen minutes, I ask the class to find a stopping point and take out their vocabulary (or whatever it is we're working on next). One day, as the timer went off and I quietly said "go ahead and find a stopping point," one of my most reluctant readers moaned, "But I want to keep reading!" The whole class looked at him and then he looked up from his book and said, "Yes, I admit it. I like reading!" It was one of the best moments of my teaching career! 

  • Back in January, a new student joined one of my classes. Before we started our choice reading time that day, I asked the student to introduce himself and tell us what kinds of books he enjoys reading. When he didn't tell us about what books he enjoys, I asked him again and he replied, "Oh, no, I don't read." The entire class gasped and turned to look at him, their mouths wide open. Then one of the students picked out a book for him to read and we started our fifteen minutes of quiet reading. The reading time had become such an understood part of the culture of that class and the class clearly enjoyed it--I was thrilled.

  • When I add books to the shelf, I do a mini book talk. A couple of weeks ago, our department spent our monthly meeting time sharing nonfiction titles. The next day, I went to our Choice Book Room and picked up some of the titles which I thought my students would find the most interesting, and then I shared a bit about the books before we started our reading time that day. As soon as I said, "okay, go ahead and grab your choice book and get ready for our fifteen minutes of choice reading," four or five students literally ran to the front of the room to grab books that I had just finished sharing! I must say, I loved seeing my students arguing over who grabbed the books first! The one out of that list that is most popular in my classes right now is Half a Life: A Memoir by Darin Strauss.  
The fifteen minutes dedicated to choice reading means that some time is being taken from focusing on other activities and skills, but, as a whole, I see so much improvement as a result of this new program that I believe it is well worth it!