gstevensblog

Slice of Life 2013

One & Done

exit51

We lost another good one.

Last night I received a text message from a young colleague of mine. “Well, it’s official…I got the job…bittersweet.”

I knew it was coming, but it still hurt to think that this great teacher would be leaving us after only one year in the classroom. He felt that he simply could not live on a teacher’s salary without having to sacrifice too much, or having to work at least two jobs, and constantly doing without.

He was offered an entry-level job with a tech company making close to $15,000 more than he makes now as a teacher. As the North Carolina legislature quibbles over whether to fund raises for teachers (again) this year, whatever they end up deciding won’t be able to compete with what the business world is offering. When we think about attracting millennials to the profession, we can’t compete with the outside world.

I can’t say I blame him. If I were him at the start of my career, I don’t know that I would choose to continue to teach, at least not in North Carolina. This state has made it perfectly clear (through its education budgets and policies) that it does not value me, my teaching colleagues, or the students it is charged with educating.

I know my friend is sad to be leaving the classroom, as he formed great relationships with students and staff this past year. He will definitely be missed.

What about those of us who are left behind, especially the veteran teachers who serve as mentors to these new teachers? I can’t speak for others but I am seriously wondering why I should continue to mentor teachers if they aren’t going to stay.

Money won’t solve all of the problems we face in public education, but it sure could solve this one. Paying teachers a respectable professional wage could go a long way in convincing those who are new to the profession to stay.

 

 

 

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The Feeding & Nurturing of Good Teachers

slice-of-life_individual

How do you grow an excellent teacher?

At the last faculty meeting of the school year, several of my colleagues were acknowledged for their years of service in our district. Teachers with five, ten, fifteen, twenty, and even thirty-five plus years were given tokens of appreciation for their years of dedication. For five years you got an insulated lunch sack. For thirty five years, a fleece blanket.  I watched the looks on the faces of my young colleagues.

As we shook our heads, each quietly ruminating on the worth of our service, one of my colleagues who has been around longer than all of us (35+ years), shared her dismay at what has become of our school system. Tokens of appreciation aside, she lamented at how far we’ve drifted from our commitment as a society to the development of our teachers. She told of experiences over her years of going to conferences all over the U.S. as well as attending NCTE at least 18 times (all paid for by the district). One year, the entire English department (12 teachers in all) went to NCTE in Orlando for five days. All of it covered by the district. Imagine the energy and enthusiasm they must have brought back to the classroom after that amazing experience?

Those of us (20 years or less) at the table let that sink in.

I have long wanted to attend NCTE even once, but have not been able to afford it. With registration, air fare, hotels, it could easily cost between $750 – $1,000 per person (depending upon location). Those who are lucky enough to go, share how significant their learning is from this experience and how it impacts their instruction in the classroom. I follow along on Twitter, wishing I was there to join them.

You see, since 2008 (the 2nd Great Depression) in NC, funds for professional development have all but dried up. Teachers who joined our ranks since then have not had the kinds of professionally enriching experiences described by my colleague. They can’t even begin  to imagine it.

And that’s a problem.

I feel privileged in that I was able to participate in a National Writing Project Summer Institute back in 2003 (Capital Area Writing Project  (CAWP) at NCSU) when it was supported by the district. That funding has long since ended, as well as the funding provided to keep CAWP running. Teachers in our district don’t have access to a Writing Project site anymore. CAWP was the single best professional development I’ve ever had. It shaped who I am as a teacher more than anything I’ve ever done.

With the state’s blessing, I also took on National Board Certification back in 2005. This was when North Carolina still paid for teachers to do this monumental work (and at $2500, out of reach for most of us on a teacher’s salary). Even then we suspected the funds would dry up so we’d better take advantage of it while we could. I recently renewed my certification and had to pay out-of-pocket $1,250.

Since 2008, my district-sponsored professional development has been limited to whatever is offered at our schools, chosen by our administrators. This professional development is not based upon my own needs or interests as an educator. It is whatever the district deems as important for that coming school year. While some of this PD is acceptable, it is not necessarily the kind that feeds my teacher soul. For that, I turn to Twitter.

I have developed my own personal Professional Learning Network (PLN) online via Twitter, and that feeds me professionally. Through this PLN I keep abreast of the latest books, research, and best practices in my field. I benefit from my online colleagues and their professional development, following them as they attend NCTE, Writing Workshops, etc., vicariously participating in these events.

What’s so sad about all of this is that there are very few of us teachers who are left in the classroom who have had the benefit of these amazing professional development experiences.

I was sharing my thoughts on this with two twenty-something teachers who have never known this kind of professional support. They simply couldn’t imagine going to a national conference or doing the kinds of things I had done, with district support. One teacher commented that it won’t be long before teachers like me will be gone and the only teachers left will be ones like them who haven’t had any significant professional development experiences.

North Carolina is just one of many states that has put funding of public schools at the bottom of its priority list. Over the last nine years, we have been on a diet designed to slowly starve us to death. Each year we are told that “next year” the funding will return and we can make the necessary improvements to our schools, provide resources, invest in our teachers. It’s not happening.

To those outside of education and to whom education is not a priority issue, it appears that the schools are running along, if not smoothly, efficiently.  Why the fuss about funding? Schools have been able to keep things going even with the most draconian budgets of the past decade.

Why change things?

Investing in teachers and their professional development, whether it be by restoring Master’s pay for teachers, NBPTS support, funding conferences, etc., is essential to creating and maintaining quality public schools.

Teachers who are not properly fed and nurtured cannot properly feed and nurture others.

At least not for long.

Oh, in case you’re wondering if investing in your teachers pays off? The colleague mentioned above who had those amazing professional development experiences? The district got their money’s worth from her as she is still teaching for them. Just finished her 53rd year!

 

 

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No Experience Necessary

Today was the day that justice would be served.

For weeks I have watched as teachers and other education supporters from all over the nation have voiced their protests over the potential confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. The number of protests, tweets, blogs, news stories about why Mrs. DeVos should not be confirmed went viral. The Democrats were unanimous in their opposition to this candidate and even two Republicans joined them. Only one vote was needed to seal the deal.

As I graded projects during my planning period today, I remembered that the vote was at noon. I tuned in to C-SPAN to watch it live. In the background I heard the names being called and votes registered: “Senator Sanders: No, Senator Burr: Aye…”

There seemed to be an awful lot of no’s.

Maybe?

Final vote: 50 for, 50 against with Mike Pence sealing the deal.

Just like that, the future of public education is in the hands of someone who has no clue what it’s all about.Someone so wholly unqualified it’s embarrassing. In a profession where teachers are required to be “highly qualified” in order to teach, it seems ludicrous that the Secretary of Education would be so woefully underqualified.

Senators from my state of North Carolina voted for her, but are we surprised?  She donated thousands of dollars to them . Money talks and as we already know all too well in NC,  education is not a high priority, in fact, not a priority at all. We wallow in the bottom of all the state rankings on just about every category except student performance. Ironic?

So many of my colleagues were devastated to hear the news today. We wonder what this will mean for our schools and especially our students. Will our already meager funding be slashed even further? Will arts programs be cut? Will class sizes increase even more than the already- too-large classes most of us teach? Will our LGBTQ students face a more hostile environment?

So many questions, concerns, fears.

This coming Saturday my husband and I will be marching in yet another protest. We have joked about buying stock in poster board and markers, but we expect that this, our second protest in three weeks, is only just the beginning.

no-experience-necessary

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Talking About Tough Topics

As I was driving in to school on Monday morning I kept thinking about all that had happened over the weekend in our country and if I could/should talk about it in my classroom. In the days since the election, many of my colleagues and I have been tip-toeing through the new political landscape, anxious not to step on toes yet strongly convicted to speak up about the issues that matter. This is not easy in a “red” state in the south.

I chatted with a few of my colleagues after I arrived at school, and they too felt that we needed to address it, but how? How do we even begin to address the chaos that is happening in our world today?

I opted to have the students respond to a prompt that I put up on the board. The prompt consisted of a statement about the executive order to ban Syrian refugees and the travel ban on the other majority-Muslim countries. I asked students to share their response to this event as well as ask any questions they had.

The response was lukewarm at best. Students either wrote “I heard something about a ban, but I am not sure what it’s about” or “I guess the president is just trying to keep us safe.” One student wrote that President Trump was just “doing what he promised” and he didn’t understand why people were so “surprised” by it.

I received the strongest reactions from my 2nd period ESL English II class. This class consists of immigrants from mostly Latin American countries, and one student who is a recent arrival from Syria. They wrote of confusion of why President Trump “hates” them and why he wants to send people back to countries where they might be killed. Their responses were heartbreaking. My student from Syria said he felt like the “luckiest person alive” since his family was one of the lucky ones to be able to come to this country, when many members of his family and friends were still stuck in Syria. He also shared that it took his family three years to complete the vetting process. Extreme vetting?  Talking about what is going on gave me and my co-teacher the opportunity to reassure our students that we are here for them and that we support them.

While most of my colleagues agree that we must talk to our students about what’s happening in our country today, none are really quite sure how to go about it.This is all new territory for most of us. I believe that the lukewarm response from my students is at best a reflection of their lack of engagement with the news. Students whose parents are vocal tend to have the most knowledge about what’s going on, but the students in my classroom today seem largely unaware of the seriousness of the rapidly changing political landscape.

How about you? Are you wanting to teach about the Muslim-ban, the “wall” or any of the other executive decisions coming down from Washington?

Here are a few resources I’ve found over the past few days that might help you:

Facing History

Pernille Ripp started a google doc with a multitude of resources: 

New York Times Learning Network 

I teach high school freshman, and I think about how they will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election. It is imperative that I help them to be informed and to learn to think critically about the issues facing our country today.

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Courage over Comfort

I’ve been reading some of the slices posted today by women who participated in the Women’s March this past Saturday. I also participated in the march here in Raleigh where organizers were expecting 3,000 women and ended up with an estimated 17,000+ marchers.

When I first heard about the March on Washington a few weeks ago, I remember texting my daughter to see if she would be participating since she lives in DC. She was on board from the start and was eagerly anticipating the event, not knowing what to expect.

When I discovered that there would be “sister marches” all over the country I quickly researched and found one right here in Raleigh. I knew it was where I needed to be.

Like many of you who marched, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, my husband, and my daughter and her friends. We came away from the march even more committed to supporting the causes that are important to us and felt empowered to take action in the face of opposition. History was made that day and we were all a part of it.

In the days since the march, the trolls have been busy trying to discredit the legitimacy of the march, openly questioning why women marched in the first place, and posting memes and making comments ridiculing the women who marched. Even one of our NC senators took a shot at us on Twitter. You can read about it here.

This is just one example of the kind of negative responses many of us were confronted with after speaking out. I don’t know about you, but I am not big on criticism, especially this kind. I expect a lot of you feel the same way. What I suspect is that the people who are throwing stones at us for marching are hoping that this backlash will cause us to withdraw from the fight, to stop speaking out to avoid further criticism and attack. Appeals abound on Facebook and Twitter for “people to get over it” and “stop trying to divide our country even more.”

My nature tells me that if I continue to speak out and become more engaged in this fight I will have to face more of this and likely it will intensify as we make progress in the battle for human rights. Honestly, I’m tired and we are only a few days in!

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9) 

I am praying that I will not grow weary in the days ahead. That I will not give up but keep on fighting for what’s right. That all the women, men, and children who marched all over the world on Saturday will continue to speak out and it will make a difference.

brene-brown-quote

 

 

 

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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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