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Slice of Life 2013

Independent Reading: Choice Matters

Today was the last day of the semester at our high school and I asked my students to reflect on their independent reading experience. I wanted to know if the time we devote, ten minutes at the start of every class period, is worth it (in their eyes). I teach on the block schedule (85 minute classes) and I strongly believe that offering students ten minutes of uninterrupted reading with books of their choice is key to helping them to become better readers and it is essential to helping them develop a love of reading.

This past semester I taught two honors level English 1 classes. I assumed that most of these students liked (if not loved) reading, but I found out that was not the case. Yes, they could read well but they didn’t like reading, and only a few would admit to loving it. It honestly broke my heart.

Over the course of the semester I did my best to help match reader to book. I spent a small fortune updating  my classroom library and tried to get the latest hot titles in my students’ hands. Matching students to the right books was key; knowing my students and knowing books was essential to this matchmaking process. I eagerly passed new titles on to the right students and they eagerly devoured them.

So today I was anxious to see what they would have to say.

Here’s the question I asked and some of the responses I received follow:

In this class, we have spent ten minutes nearly every day on independent reading of choice books. How has this practice had an impact on you as a reader? How important is it for teachers to allow time for independent reading?

“It has helped me build empathy towards others as well as reminding me that we are all not the same.”

“It is important for teachers to allow independent reading because it gives students a chance to step into another person’s shoes in life.”

“When we first started the class I would never read because reading is not my thing and I felt as if I can’t understand so why push myself harder? Now since the first day my reading is better and I feel better and confident in my reading.”

“…it has helped me to become a more fluent reader and it showed me that you can really have a love for reading.”

“Hopefully the next teacher I have will allow independent reading because it is very important to me.”

“Reading a book for ten minutes every day has exposed me to so much vocabulary…”

“Reading for ten minutes every day has made me a better and stronger reader.”

“This class helped me learn to like reading once I actually find a book I like and actually get into the book.”

“Before taking this class, I read books that were interesting from the very beginning, now I can read books that have a slower pace as well.”

“I also believe ideals/morals can be created through books, thus students in the future years should read books like To Kill a Mockingbird for a better future.”

“The first ten minutes of class are the best part of class.”

“The consistent 10 minutes of reading has made me a much stronger reader. I believe I can tackle much harder books than before.”

“Not only is reading good for me emotionally but mentally, reading puts me in a calm state.”

“…it gets students into a literature mindset.”

“I think the time has given me more patience for books and to enjoy the parts with not a lot of action. Now I also enjoy books that are slower (paced).”

“I believe it is extremely important for teachers to allow time for reading because it might give the students a love for reading they didn’t have before.”

Overwhelmingly, the student responses from both classes were very positive with most students admitting that they had either discovered a love of reading or rediscovered a love of reading they thought they had lost. All students said they needed their teachers to provide this time and choice to help them continue to develop as readers.

I share this feedback about the importance of student choice and time for independent reading in our classrooms to encourage those teachers who might want to do this in their own classrooms but they’re afraid they “don’t have time.”

When teachers tell me they can’t fit independent reading into their curriculum because there’s not enough time I  remind them of this simple truth: If you don’t give your students time to read in your classroom, they won’t read outside of your classroom.

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Something’s Missing

Slice of Life

 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Something’s Missing

It has been a really long time since I’ve written a “Slice of Life” entry…not that I haven’t written, but I haven’t submitted to the SOL blog. I’ve been feeling the need to get back into writing and submitting and I guess this gift of a “snow day” is the impetus I needed to get going.

Here’s what is on my mind this morning: A close friend of mine and I have been sharing our mutual discontent and lack of enthusiasm and creativity for teaching lately. We used to teach at the same middle school, but I left to go to the high school almost two years ago and she stayed on. (This is my 17th year teaching; she’s at 19 years).

When I left middle school I was hoping that the switch to a new school, a new grade, would be just the ticket to kick my creative juices into gear, and that needed kick would carry me through to retirement (10 more years before I am eligible to retire with full benefits). I have enjoyed being a creative teacher and am used to spending a lot of time reading, researching, creating, collaborating with others to bring energy to my classroom. Over the years I have been blessed to work with other teachers who have been eager to collaborate with me and as a result I was successful at keeping my own energy and enthusiasm up for teaching in middle school. The last two years of teaching 8th grade language arts, I was growing more and more frustrated by the micromanagement of my administration and felt that it was limiting my creativity and interest in teaching. I knew that it was time to leave and try something new.

Since moving to high school, I have found it difficult to find that same level of energy and enthusiasm that I once had and I am trying to figure out what caused it and how to fix it.

I am now in my 2nd year of teaching English 1 (Fall semester) as well as English 2 ESL Sheltered (Spring semester). I started teaching an ESL English 1 sheltered class (co-teaching with an ESL Teacher) in my first year at the high school and found that I really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I petitioned my principal to ask if we could create an English 2 sheltered class that I could teach so that the students who were in my class could catch up and finish two English classes in one year (most of the students were older to begin with—average age of 17). He agreed and I ended up keeping this group for the entire year. I loved teaching these kids because they were eager to learn English and it was easy to form relationships with them as we were together for the whole school year. I received a lot of gratification from working with my ESL students and they were the highlight of my first year of high school teaching.

For a number of reasons, I have had a difficult time forming relationships with my current students. My colleagues say that block scheduling is to blame…that students know they only have you for one semester so why bother getting to know you or building a relationship when you will not be in their lives in four or five months? As a former middle school teacher, I also notice that unlike middle school, I only see these students when they are in my classroom. They are off to other parts of the campus after that and I don’t often run into them like I would when I worked on a “team” and saw them all day between classes, lunch, and then bus room. Also, unlike middle school students, I have found that high schoolers are largely uninterested in their teachers. They have other more important things on their minds and/or they are completely absorbed in their phones. I often feel as if I am completely invisible in my own classroom.

Teaching high school is a completely different animal than teaching middle school. I am not sure why I feel this way but I do. While we are not “required” to teach certain texts, most English teachers still do, leaving those of us who prefer standards-based teaching out of the loop. It is difficult to find other teachers to collaborate with because so many of them are deeply invested in keeping things as they are. Last year I felt very much alone. This year I have a first year teacher who is eager to collaborate with, but with his lack of experience, much of the planning falls in my lap. I know that I have always done my best work when having a collaborative partner. It’s just not as easy to find one where I am now.

So all this is to say I am trying to figure out if I can somehow muster up the creative juices needed to remain vital and connected to my students in my classroom. Is this just a phase I’m in as I adjust to the transition from middle to high school? Am I able to find what I’m looking for where I’m at?

Some of you may be thinking that perhaps I need to move again, find another school, go back to middle school, etc.  I work at a good school, and was recruited to come here by my former principal. He has been and continues to be supportive of whatever it is I am doing in my classroom, so administrative support is not the problem.

Am I just in a slump? Winter blues? I am not sure. I have been struggling with these feelings for a while now, so I don’t think it’s a phase.

Am I being prepared for a different role? Is this a natural phase for someone at the tail end of their teaching career? Although many at my age might be retiring, I am not able to do that for at least a decade, so I can’t and won’t just get by until then. I owe it to myself and my students to figure out how to be the best I can be in my classroom.

Anyone else out there feeling these things, too?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Thanks!

 

 

 

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Reflection on Grant Wiggins’ posts: A Day in the Life of H.S. Students & Middle School Students’ Favorite Activities/Subjects

On Friday, I happened to come across this Grant Wiggins blog post and I’ve been thinking about it all weekend, wondering what to make of it. Judging from the number of hits this post has gotten (50,000+ as of this morning), I’m guessing that many of you have been thinking about it as well.

It’s not like it never occurred to me that the life of a student (in this case high school, but in reality not much different from my middle school students’ classrooms) can be difficult, tedious, and downright painful.  My colleagues and I often talk about how unrealistic it is for us to ask students to go all day with little to no breaks other than their twenty minute lunch (please remain in your seat) and the three-minute change of classes. Most teachers could not do it, yet we expect young adolescents to endure this every day. It’s just how it is. Get used to it. Stop complaining.

Except it really is wrong to expect from them what we ourselves could not do, isn’t it?

Some might say that we (adults) have lived through it and we turned out okay. But did we? I can’t speak for you but I know we had recess through the 8th grade. We walked home for lunch (a one-hour break in the day), we had P.E. every day. We also didn’t have test prep, remediation, or a developmentally inappropriate curriculum to master.

At my school, we don’t have and have never had recess. Some of us have lobbied for it over the years but it has regularly been shot down for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with our schedule and squeezing every minute out of the day for “instruction.”

But aside from the school-wide implications of this teacher’s shadowing experience, what does it mean about my own classroom? This post has had me asking myself some hard questions…Do I allow for movement? Do I teach short mini-lessons to break up the class period?  Do I offer relevant project-based learning? Am I being responsive to my students’ needs, both academically as well as physically/emotionally?

While these questions have been running around my head all weekend, they were joined by even more challenging questions pertaining to my subject area.

As much as I would love to think that English Language Arts is most students’ favorite subject, I know it is not. Another great post on Grant Wiggins’ blog discussed a survey of middle school students about their most interesting assignments/subjects. This reminded me that in spite of my deep love for all things English, the majority of my students (and probably yours) do not enjoy it.

Take a look at the chart at this chart from the post. ELA ranks as #1 least favorite subject.

ms-survey-most-bored

Source:  http://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/middle-school-students-survey-responses-most-interesting-work-last-year/

This should not be news to me as I regularly survey students at the start of the school year about their likes/dislikes. This year there were only about 10 or 12 students out of the 135 I teach who listed ELA as their favorite subject, and with rare exception these students were academically gifted  in language arts.  Science was the #1 favorite with math a close second.  Social Studies was up there with ELA as least favorite. Students cite “doing experiments or labs” and other “hands-on” activities as a chief reason for loving science.

What’s a devoted ELA teacher to do with this information?

I’ve been thinking about the structure of my class and how much time we devote to certain activities. I know that one task that is particularly disliked by most students is writing, even for those who consider themselves good at it. Writing takes time. How do I break up the class period to allow for movement, change in task, and still allow enough time for students to think deeply enough to write well?

Reading critically is also difficult for most students. I do try to break up close reading tasks with less challenging work, but again this is hard. It takes time for students to engage with text and move to the level of analysis required for some lessons.  How do we balance critical analysis with other less cognitively-demanding tasks?

Reading and writing are mostly sedentary activities. Do students need to be seated quietly at their desks to complete their work in my classroom?  What could I do to allow more freedom of movement?

Some of the challenges I have in my current position are very large class sizes (average class size of 30 students), academically leveled classes, and sixty minute class blocks. We switched to longer class periods this year. While the change to longer class times was initially welcomed by most teachers (we were at 47 minutes last year), maintaining student attention has been challenging.  It is also very difficult to have a lot of movement when classes are packed with students. The noise level can be a problem and it can feel rather chaotic with that many bodies moving around a small space, making it difficult for some to concentrate on the tasks at hand.  I still incorporate movement and group work but I find it quite challenging and almost impossible in some of my classes. This is especially true in my inclusion class. How do I balance the need for movement with the need for quiet required for thinking?

So what do I do with this information? How can I alter my classroom experience to better accommodate the needs of my students?

I am not sure. I do know that I plan to do some observational research this week. I will keep track of the amount of time my students spend on any one activity and take notes about the level of engagement I observe. I also plan to look for ways to incorporate more movement into our everyday routine.  I will continue to look for ways to increase student interest with relevant lessons and activities.

ELA teachers: Have you been able to make changes that have increased engagement in your classes? If so, I would love to hear from you.

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AP Lit Lessons for the ELA Middle School Classroom

AP Lit Lessons for the ELA Middle School Classroom

This past week I had the opportunity to participate in an AP Literature & Composition Summer institute (APSI). As a middle school teacher in my district this was quite an experience and one that most teachers at my level never get to do. In my case, a high school teacher had to back out at the last minute, and I was the lucky recipient of this coveted spot. I wanted to try and capture some of the gems that I gleaned from this amazing experience so that other middle school teachers might benefit from my experience as well.

I have always been interested in what goes on in an AP class and the kinds of skills that students are expected to have once they reach that level. As a curriculum writer for my district, I had been charged with incorporating CCSS into our 7th grade curriculum and had successfully introduced more challenging texts and supporting strategies into that pacing guide.

Currently I teach 8th grade and I am in the midst of writing some new units for this grade level. I participated in the AP training class because I wanted to learn more about the content, strategies, and expectations for AP-level work in order to incorporate these strategies/skills into the new curriculum as well as apply them in my own classroom.

What I learned is that the skill of close reading is crucial for success in AP Lit. We have been teaching and reinforcing this skill over the past three years at our school. It was very gratifying to learn that this emphasis will definitely pay off for our students when they get to the high school level and beyond. AP texts include poems, prose, and book-length novels and plays. These works must have “literary merit” and in our state (NC) should include the focus of our 12th grade curriculum (16th Century literature to the present, British & American literature). All week we read AP sample texts, answered multiple choice questions, read student sample “free response” essays, and practiced scoring them based upon a rubric. The range of student writing was considerable and I was so impressed by the level of sophistication that some students were able to produce in less than an hour. On the free response section of the test, students must read an excerpt of prose text and/or a poem pairing and then formulate and write a coherent essay response in less than an hour. This is no small feat! Many of the texts were extremely difficult and I would have been challenged to do that even today, let alone when I was senior in high school!

In addition to the importance of close reading skills, students must know how to write well. Specifically, they need to know how to convey the “what” and the “how” of the piece. The “what” is the content—what is happening in the text? Does the student understand what is going on? Then, they need to be able to explain the “how”—what literary techniques/devices does the author use to convey meaning? It is not enough to know/define the literary terms; students should have internalized these meanings and be able to skillfully convey their understanding of the writer’s craft. This is where I think many students need the most support. They can pick out a metaphor or repetition or antithesis, but they struggle with explaining why the author chose these techniques to convey meaning. Provide lots of opportunities for students to practice this skill.

It would be impossible to list everything I learned  in my APSI, but here a few gems:

1)      Continue to teach students how to do a “close read” of a text. Remind them that they must read “beyond the text” and think about what the text could be saying on a symbolic or metaphoric level.

2)      Teach students about literary archetypes. This will be invaluable to them as they encounter the classics in high school/college.

3)      When writing about texts, always cite evidence to support your claims. Keep your discussions text-based. Show you know what you are talking about by citing direct evidence from the text to support your arguments. Focus on the “what” and the “how” of the text.

4)      When having students read a particularly difficult text or set of poems, have them first read/annotate the text individually. Then have students discuss their responses in a small group setting using guided questions for that text. After they have fully discussed the text in this manner, then have them write their responses. (We did this ourselves and it helped tremendously when we were writing our own free-response essays to a particularly difficult text.)

5)      The collective literary experience of reading a novel as a class is so important for so many reasons. In our district, teachers have been discouraged from reading a novel as a whole class since the implementation of CCSS. There are many reasons why this makes sense (e.g. the amount of time it takes to read through an entire novel together as a class, especially a particularly  long novel, lack of funding for books, different reading levels, etc.), but the importance of a shared literary experience cannot be downplayed. I would like to try Ariel Sack’s Whole Novels for the Whole Class approach and see if I can’t make that work this year.

6)      When students are analyzing/interpreting text, have them pay particular attention to the “tension of opposites in a text” (light/dark, good/evil), ironies, etc. All AP Lit exam free response texts will contain these contrasts on some level, and it is an excellent approach to interpreting a text. This identification of opposites/contrasts is also a great way into a text. Most students will be able to do this, and this gives all a place to start in literary analysis.

7)      You must balance the rigor with the enjoyment of the class. Always follow a particularly difficult text/novel with something more accessible/enjoyable so that students (and teacher) don’t burnout. This is so important to remember. Balancing intense analysis or writing with lighter texts will give all the fuel for the long haul.

In my classroom I have incorporated many of these techniques to help my students grapple with challenging texts. For example, we have read many of Poe’s short stories and some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work. These texts are challenging in many ways—especially the vocabulary and syntax—but with appropriate support, my students have been successful in reading and enjoying them. I believe this practice and exposure to challenging works of literary merit will prepare them for the rigors of high school and college-level work. This early introduction familiarizes them with the language of the discipline that is so essential to their academic success. Knowing exactly what is expected of my students for AP-level work, I feel better prepared to provide the types of learning experiences they need to give them the best chance for success. This is particularly true if we are sincere about equal access to AP courses. Giving middle school students a heads-up on what to expect empowers all students to earn a spot in an AP course.

If you currently teach middle school and have an opportunity to participate in an AP Summer Institute or workshop, I encourage you to take it. This training and experience has been invaluable to me as I work to create a challenging and engaging language arts classroom experience for all.

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Slice of Life: Would You Rather Fast-Forward Time or Rewind it?

Slice of Life
I’m participating in Slice of Life, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

We began our argument-writing unit, and yesterday I used a warm-up activity called “Would You Rather..?” suggested by Kelly Gallagher in his book, Write Like This. I divided students into four groups and gave them a “Would you rather?” question to ponder and then respond to individually (each student would have to make a decision and take a stand).
One of the questions was “Would you rather fast-forward time or rewind it?”

I thought about my own answers to these questions, particularly what my answers would be when I was in the 8th grade. To me it was a no-brainer…of course I would have chosen “fast-forward time” when I was 14! Who wouldn’t want to be older when you are the difficult age of 14?

Imagine my surprise when I realized that only three or four students out of all of my five classes chose “fast forward time.” I was amazed at their quick decisions to rewind their lives. How do you want to rewind your life when you’ve only been on the planet for 13 or 14 years?

Many said they wanted to be “little again…like 5 or 6” or “in kindergarten so we could take naps and have recess” but some said “we didn’t have any stress when we were little.”

I continued to question students to be sure they understood the question. Maybe they misunderstood what I was asking them? “Wouldn’t you want to be 16 so you could drive a car? Or maybe old enough to go to college and be on your own?”

“Nope.”

Scratching my head, I asked other teachers what they would have answered at 14. They all said “fast forward time” immediately. Not one person said rewind time. My colleagues were equally baffled.

So why am I writing about this today? I guess because it bothers me at some level. I want to know why today’s young people don’t look forward to growing up. It reminds me of an article I read a few years back about the growing number of teens who aren’t applying for their driver’s licenses when they are eligible. Many simply aren’t interested in driving cars. This was unheard of when I grew up. Of course you would get your license! Even if you didn’t have a car of your own (as I didn’t until I was in college), driving a car was a rite of passage and it meant freedom. EVERYONE had to get a driver’s license.

I am not sure if my students’ longing to go back in time is a reflection of how coddled they are and being “little again” means more parental caretaking and less responsibility-taking on their part, or if it’s a result of  feeling like they were forced to grow up too fast? Whatever the root cause, it saddens me that this generation of students does not see independence and adulthood in a positive light.

What are the implications for their (and our) futures if this reluctance to grow up is more widespread than the students in my 8th grade classes?

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Counting by 11’s Blogger Challenge

Rhonda over at Mardie’s Muse invited me to participate in a meme that is circulating in the blogosphere and Twitter. Not entirely sure what the purpose is but it sure reminds me of a chain letter…you know, one of those that says “if you don’t follow these steps exactly and pass it on to X number of people, bad luck with strike!” Just kidding (sort of) but in an effort to play along (as well avoid the school work that is waiting for me), I will give it my best shot.
As Rhonda explained in her blog, the process is as follows:
• Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
• Share 11 random facts about yourself.
• Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
• List 11 bloggers that you’d like to nominate.
• Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let the bloggers you’ve nominated know that they’ve been nominated.

11 Random Facts about Me
1. I grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey and my Jersey accent rears its ugly head whenever I am around people from the NJ/NY area (especially family members). Although I haven’t lived there in 30 years, you can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take the Jersey out of the girl (hence my twitter name jerseygirl_1021).
2. Both of my parents were deaf. Although I know some sign-language, my parents did lip-read and we were not encouraged to learn to sign. It is one of my deepest regrets.
3. I don’t eat chocolate. (I am considered a freak by most of my women friends for this fact).
4. I am 6 ft. 1” tall and I have never played basketball or volleyball (although I was heavily pressured in high school to join the teams). At the time, most girls did not play sports and I was definitely not “sporty” by any stretch of the imagination. I do wish that I had, as I had a definite height advantage back then (kids are bigger today!), and a basketball or volleyball scholarship would have been sweet.
5. I met my husband on the telephone. At the time I worked for a sister company of his (me in New York and he in Los Angeles) and we began chatting at work and eventually at home and the rest is history.
6. I weigh less now than I did when I was 12 years old. I lost 100 pounds between the middle of 7th grade and the start of 8th grade. I have spent the better part of my life keeping it off.
7. This is my 14th year of teaching. I taught for one year after I graduated college and left the teaching world. I re-entered it 18 years later (translated: major culture shock).
8. Although I grew up in the 60’s and early 70’s, I did not participate in my first protest until this past summer. Anyone familiar with what’s going on in my state of North Carolina has heard about “Moral Monday” protests. At the end of July, I marched with other educators from my state to protest the ongoing cuts to education in our state. Truth be told, I liked it.
9. Although I was born and raised in a city, I have become quite a “country mouse.” I live in an outlying suburb and I have grown to love the peace and quiet here. Whenever I visit the big city, I am amazed that at one time I actually worked there and enjoyed it. I like to visit the city but couldn’t live there anymore.
10. I have taught at the same middle school for the past 13 years and I have taught all three grade levels (ten years in 6th, three years in 7th, and now I am in 8th grade). I LOVE 8th Grade! I recently covered a class for a colleague who teaches 6th and I vowed “never again!”
11. I am considering getting my certification to teach high school English…just in case.

Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.

1. What 1-3 pieces of advice would you give to a newbie teacher?
1) Join Twitter and follow as many great educators you can find. 2) Never stop learning— great teachers are lifelong learners and realize that they can never know everything 3) Find a great mentor teacher and learn as much from this person as you can to apply to your own teaching.
2. You’ll be spending the afternoon outdoors. Where will you be and what will you be doing there? I will be either at the lake, taking my dog, Rosie, for a long walk OR at the dog park with her. Nothing brings me more joy than being outside on a beautiful day, watching Rosie and her dog friends play at the park.
3. Which 2-5 professional books were the most influential in molding you as a teacher? Explain.
Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle was the first professional book that helped shape who I am as a teacher. Her workshop model is one that I have tried to emulate over the years (sometimes successfully, sometimes not), but her thoughts on teaching and learning make sense to me. The 2nd most influential book has to be The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. This book absolutely transformed my approach to independent reading in the classroom and helped me to build even stronger relationships with my students through shared books. Donalyn’s 40 Book Challenge has been a staple in my classroom ever since, and I have been able to share this with many other teachers and have seen its transformative power. Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like This and Deeper Reading have helped shaped my approaches to reading and writing with students, especially the concept of using mentor texts. Currently, I am reading Ariel Sack’s Whole Novels for the Whole Classroom, and although I have just started it I can tell it contains a wealth of practical ideas that I can use in my classroom. I could go on as I am reading a few others, but you only asked for 2-5.
4. You are writing. Describe the scene. Where do you write? Paper and pen, journal, notebook, or computer? Music or quiet? Office, den, living room? Desk or couch?
Depends on what I am writing. I have been journaling for around 20+ years. I write every morning using a pen, spiral notebook, at my kitchen table, with coffee in hand. For my blog, I use the computer. Although the computer is easier to use in terms of editing, I truly love the act of writing by hand. There is something about writing out my thoughts that is completely different than typing them on a computer.
5. What are the top 3 things on your bucket list? Top bucket list items: I would love to go to Europe some day. I have never been there and have always thought it would be wonderful to go to Italy or possibly Greece; I would love to actually publish my writing someday; and I would love to become a grandparent.
6. Tell about a time when you had a particularly positive influence on a student (or class of students) OR tell about a time when a student had a particularly positive influence on you. (See question 11).
7. What is one new thing you want to try in the classroom in 2014? I would like to try doing the Slice of Life blogging challenge with my students this year. I did it myself last year to try it out, and I would really like to see how it would work with students. It was a wonderful experience and I think that students would get a lot out of it.
8. You have just received a blank cheque (unlimited funds from an anonymous donor) to be used for a class field trip. Where are you taking your students? What will they learn from this field trip? That’s an easy one since we are in the middle of planning a three-day trip to our nation’s capitol, Washington, DC, for our students. The trip is scheduled for the first week of June (after our state testing is complete), and we have about half of our students signed up. The other half really need help to pay the fees and this blank check would be an awesome way to make sure 100% of our students get to go on the trip. We want to go to DC with our students to show them the historic places that represent our nation’s history and culture. So many of our kids have never been outside of Raleigh.
9. You are off to dinner and a movie? What kind of restaurant will it be? What genre of movie will you see? Dinner would probably be at either an Italian or Mexican restaurant. I absolutely love all things Italian (bread, pasta, sauce, cheese) as well as most things Mexican (chips, salsa, guacamole, fajitas, tacos). The movie would be what my husband would call “art house” (aka a weird, character-driven movie that probably is sad and/or has an unhappy ending. Don’t know why but I love these types of films.
10. What literary character are you most similar to? Explain. This is probably not a good thing, but I can really relate to Olive, in Olive Kitteridge. Don’t ask.
11. Tell about a particularly proud moment in your teaching career. Since I’ve implemented the 40-Book Challenge in my classroom over five years ago, I have had the pleasure of seeing student who started with me as non-readers, and watched them blossom into readers by the end of the school year. One student I taught in both 6th and then 7th grade, Sarah, started the year with me in that situation. She had the lowest possible end of grade scores in reading and she saw herself as a non-reader. Over the course of her 6th grade year, I was able to introduce her to books that she actually liked and she started to read on her own. By the end of 7th grade, she scored at two points away from the highest level in reading on her end of grade test. End of grade test scores aside, I know that learning to read changed this child’s life. She comes from a very poor, dysfunctional family where few people graduated from high school. I am confident that with continued support from her teachers and her firmly established love of reading that Sarah will defy the odds and find success.

11 Questions for the Bloggers on my list who choose to participate:
1. Dog or cat person? Explain.
2. What is your favorite grade to teach? Why? Least favorite? Why?
3. Many people (in the blogosphere and on Twitter) are participating in the “One Little Word” at the start of this new year. If you are doing this, what is your word? If you aren’t, what word would you choose? Why?
4. What book have you failed to read that would be embarrassing for you to admit?
5. What book have you read that you consider a “guilty pleasure?”
5. Choose 2-3 titles on your TBR list and tell why you want to read them.
6. What keeps you energized and enthusiastic about teaching in this time of testing/accountability and lack of teacher support?
7. Book or Kindle? Why?
8. What is your favorite Twitter chat? Why?
9. Snow day or delayed opening? Why?
10. Who is your favorite adult fiction author? Why?
11. What are the benefits of being a teacher who blogs?
11 Invitations to participate in this meme:
1. Stephanie Shouldis http://stephanieshouldis.blogspot.com/
2. Sarah Anderson http://yaloveblog.com/
3. Bill Ferriter http://blog.williamferriter.com/
4. Jill Barnes http://kidblog.org/BarnesA2-2013/
5. Michelle Haseltine http://1gratefulteacher.blogspot.com/
6. Christopher Bronke http://mrbronkesrandomthoughts.blogspot.com/
7. Liz McKenna http://stufflizreads.wordpress.com/
8. Andrea Payan http://mrspayanreads.blogspot.com/
9. Ben Kuhlman http://writeach.blogspot.com/
10. Cindy Minnich http://chartingbythestars.wordpress.com/
11. Sonja Schulz http://thesassybibliophile.blogspot.com/

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Slice of Life: Thank You PLN!

Slice of Life

I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

On this last day of 2013 I have been busy writing most of the day, working on my Teacher of the Year portfolio that is due in early January. The portfolio consists of several different parts, with questions about my professional background, education, community involvement, philosophy of teaching, educational trends and issues, and what my message to teachers would be if I am chosen as the county teacher of the year. Working on this portfolio has made me think about the things that matter and make a difference for me as a teacher and in turn have an impact on the students in my classroom.

There has been a running theme in my responses —the importance of developing my Professional Learning Network (PLN) and taking responsibility for my own professional development.

My pre-Twitter days consisted of me reading as many professional books I could get my hands on and occasionally finding a blog or two to follow for recommendations. Through my discovery of the EC Ning I began to expand my network, and it was here that I was encouraged to try Twitter. I would have never guessed what an impact that decision would make on my professional life! Through Twitter I have been connected to smart, creative, passionate teachers and writers/readers from all over the world. Right at my fingertips I receive expert advice and suggestions on a daily basis. Twitter chats like #titletalk, #engchat, #mschat have been invaluable to me.

My goal is to try to help connect other teachers in my school and district through social media like Twitter. I have given workshops on how to use Twitter, find people to follow, participate in chats, and ultimately build your own PLN.

My online connections with other passionate teachers keep me energized and enthusiastic in the classroom. I am always reading about something that I want to try out for myself with my own students.

In fact, it was through Twitter that I first heard about the Slice of Life Challenge. This past March I participated in the daily slicing and really enjoyed it. I wanted to try it out on my own before trying it with my students. I hope to slice with students this year!

So on this last day of 2013, I would like to thank all of you who I’ve met in this space, on Twitter, in chats, blogs, and other social media spots, for your contributions to my professional development. I appreciate the ideas, suggestions, materials, and feedback that you offer, and for challenging me to be the best teacher I can be. I hope that my contributions have helped you as well.

I look forward to learning with you in 2014!

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Slice of Life Challenge: Reading Slump

Slice of Life

 I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

I’m in a reading slump right now and I need a good book to pull me out of it. For the past two months I have been busy reading lots of things—non-fiction professional books (Falling in Love with Close Reading, Reading in the Wild, Voice Lessons…to name a few), twitter/twitter chats, blogs, articles online. But sadly, no fiction.

Have you ever gone through a spell of reading really good books that leave you with a book hangover? Where the memory and the feel of the book linger way beyond the last page? To start a new book right away—especially one that might not measure up to the last one—would be sacrilege. So you wait for the feeling to pass and a new book to entice you.

Except that hasn’t happened.

To be honest, I have been immersed in the world of Edgar Allan Poe for the last two months. I am new to teaching 8th grade this year and we have been doing an intense author study of Poe and his work. Since this is all new to me I haven’t been reading much else since this study began. I am fascinated with Poe! His writing is so masterful and I have found the analysis of his writing to be exceptionally interesting to me and my students. (Not to mention the discovery of literary devices I never knew existed! Who knew anaphora and apostrophe were literary devices?) I am learning so much and I absolutely love it. But I am really missing being in the midst of a wonderful novel. It just doesn’t seem right, you know?

So we are wrapping up our last week before Christmas break and I would love to have a wonderful YA book to read in my downtime.

Any recommendations from my fellow ELA teachers?

Thanks for your help in pulling me out of my slump.

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Slice of Life 2013 November 12, 2013: Smartphones & Shallow Reading

Slice of Life

I’m participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

This week my students are working on their Article of the Week (AoW), an article I borrowed from Kelly Gallagher’s collection. They are reading about the use of smartphones affecting our ability to think deeply. In the article the author mentions Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The information in the article spurred me on to pick up Carr’s book and dig a little deeper into this topic.

What I am reading is causing me great distress, both personally and professionally. Carr outlines the many ways that our nation’s obsession with our smartphones is costing us our ability to do the kind of deep reading and thinking required in most classrooms today. While we may be spending more time “reading” on the internet, this reading is more like “browsing” than the kind of reading that requires concentration and deep thought. We flip back and forth from one site to the next, clicking away on hyperlinks as we quickly skim and scan the content. This different type of reading and responding to text is re-wiring our brains.

Personally, I have begun to notice that my own obsession with my smartphone and its apps has had an effect on my concentration. I tend to be less willing to tackle longer articles and dense text when I can quickly scan my phone for the latest tweets. Of course I still engage in deeper reading, but I am noticing that I am often less motivated to tackle reading tasks that are challenging, long, or complicated.

Professionally, I am deeply concerned about the implications of Carr’s work. Our state curriculum is aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Students are expected to engage in “close reading” and analysis of text, text that is often very complicated and challenging to the average middle school student. Their willingness to tackle this kind of intellectually challenging task is going to be that much more difficult if they don’t have the brain power to do it. If students’ brains are being fed a consistent diet of “shallow” reading, how can we expect them to embrace the feast that is “close” reading and deep analysis of text?

I worry that our state end of grade reading comprehension test is designed to assess a student’s ability to read deeply and analyze text. With nine long passages to read, students are not apt to read that deeply. The test is three hours long and many students struggle to read each passage once, let alone the two to three times required to truly analyze the text. If students are not able to sustain attention for one long article, what is the likelihood they will for nine?

What about you? Are you seeing any of this in your own reading life? What about your students’ reading lives?

I don’t see us giving up our smartphones any time soon, so what’s a teacher to do?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

smartphone

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Slice of Life October 8, 2013: The Power of Noticing

Slice of Life 

I’m participating in the March Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres at Two Writing Teachers.

We were working on the scripts for the drummer boys of the Civil War research project when I first noticed Sean’s writing. Until today, I haven’t seen any real writing, or for that matter, any real work on Sean’s part. Identified as academically gifted in language arts, Sean is also on our “watch list” for those who are not performing at grade level and liable to slip through the cracks.  Sean’s presence in my classroom had been unremarkable.

Until today, Sean struck me as a quiet, non-performer, more than willing to fly under the radar and hope to eke out another year without much effort on his part nor notice on ours.

Today I held my interest meeting for Nanowrimo, or National Novel Writing Month. For the past few Novembers, I have “sponsored” a small group of writers who were eager to take on the challenge of attempting to write a novel in one month. Some have been successful, meeting their word count goals, while others have succeeded beyond what they even thought they could do. All have had fun and forged friendships within this small circle of writers.

While I was circulating in the computer lab today, checking in with students as they wrote their scripts for the group photo story project, I stopped to see what Sean had written so far. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting much.

I was wrong.

Sean had written several eloquent paragraphs about the history of the drummer boys. It was clear that he was enjoying the writing and he was anxious to perfect it. I watched him wordsmith his creation and noticed the high level of engagement he had in this task. Until now I hadn’t seen him this alive in the classroom.

I immediately thought of Nanowrimo. He had to join us!

“Do you plan to attend the interest meeting today for National Novel Writing Month?” I asked.

“What’s that?” he replied.

I gave him my best two-minute definition of the writing challenge and urged him to join us at lunch to find out more. He agreed to check it out.

The lunchtime meeting came and went and I had many students show an interest this year, more than ever before.

But no Sean.

After lunch, Sean arrived at my classroom door.

“Did you forget about the meeting, Sean?” I asked, hoping I was correct.

“No, I didn’t forget. I just don’t think I can do it,” Sean whispered, avoiding eye contact with me.

“Sean, you have to do this. You are a writer. You have a gift. You have to try!” I urged.

Sean stopped and looked at me and then he smiled. The first genuine smile I have seen on him since school started. It was as if something clicked within him and I could see a light in his eyes that had been missing before today.

“I’ll think about it,” he said as he took his seat, “I promise I will.”

 

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