Monday, February 3, 2014

On the Cusp

This is my second year teaching 8th grade and I feel like the name of my blog has come under scrutiny. One thing that I've noticed about 8th graders is that they are much more high school than 6th, or even 7th, grade. My colleagues in the 6th and 7th grades are consistently remarking on how much the kids have grown up and matured since their time with them. I see this as well, even over the course of the year. The middle schoolers I meet in August are freshman before May. This is a huge growth year for adolescents and it makes running a successful classroom library quite tricky in an 8th grade classroom. For example, my students are obsessed with John Green right now and I don't think there's any way to argue that John Green is a middle grades writer. He's brilliant and funny and he writes YA. They are also in love with Laurie Halse Anderson, and while some of my struggling students have been immersed in CHAINS and FORGE, most of them have clasped onto SPEAK and WINTERGIRLS, with THE IMPOSSIBLE KNIFE OF MEMORY having a giant waitlist. These are not middle grade titles, but my kids adore them. This makes me concerned for any potential justification I may have to make as to why a title is in my classroom library, but more than anything, I see my students becoming readers and that is what is most important. This is also where you have to be very on top of what your students are reading, particularly if they got it from your library. I work in a very conservative district and this is a real concern for me. However, for the most part, I think the voraciousness with which my students are reading has been seen as a welcome change and I am always quick to tell a student when I'm not sure that they are ready for a title. Usually, being in 8th grade, this just makes them want to read it more. But it allows me to have that conversation with them, telling them that there may be some content in the book that they struggle with, but that they need to not get hung up on particulars and focus on the bigger picture. Trusting kids makes them want to be trustworthy. All of that to say, I'm not so sure that Middle Grade Reads is quite the proper title for my blog at this point, because most of what my students are begging for is YA. Those of you who teach 8th grade, have you noticed the same thing in your classroom? How do you handle it?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sharing: Locomotive

LocomotiveLocomotive by Brian Floca
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book takes you on a turn of the century cross-country trek by train. Told in second person as a passenger of the train, you are overloaded with gorgeous page after page, filled with well-researched information.
This book was visually stunning. I could have looked at the intricate illustrations for hours.
I also learned so many neat facts (I like to collect those), like how engineers had a lever that would release sand onto the track if a train was having trouble getting enough traction to move forward.
This is wonderful informational picture book for the upper-elementary set, or anyone who loves trains.
Personal note:I tried to read it to my 4 year old and he lost interest about half way through, but my 10 year old loved it.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Argument Paragraph Unit

           Coming back from Christmas break has put instruction in my classroom into Argument mode! We began our Argument Paragraph Unit after returning. In the 8th grade, we are largely modeling our units on the MAISA units that are shared at the previous link and so far they seem to be working really well. The first semester, I was trying to mash together bits and pieces from a million different books by Heinemann (my all-time favorite professional publisher) and was really struggling to get cohesiveness and any type of fluency. So I spent the larger part of two months really scouring the internet to try and find a curriculum that I could base myself off of. I surprised myself this year by learning that I really need some kind of foundation to go off of, before I felt comfortable enough to really be creative with my lesson planning.
            So far the students seem to get the idea of a debatable claim and evidence, but they are having loads of trouble with commentary. I got some ideas for how to supplement that concept through some of the brilliant educators I work with and follow on Twitter. First, we're going to try the Slip or Trip activity, to really get students thinking about why commentary is needed to show how evidence supports a claim. Then, we are going to try the Write Around Text-on-Text method, as described at the link by Buffy Hamilton (The Unquiet Librarian). This should help students be able to build off of one another's ideas as well as the text itself to figure out how the pieces of argument all fit together.
           I will do my best to start updating here much more frequently and share how this unit is progressing.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Books in Your Being

I really love books. I love them as physical items on their own; the way they look and smell and feel. I love the intrinsic promise they hold. I love how every story has the power to change you.

I've been thinking a lot about the book Every Day by David Levithan. I read this book many months ago and it is one book that has become lodged somewhere under my ribs, truly melding into who I am.

If you haven't read the book, you need to know that the main character, A, is a soul without a body. A wakes up in a different body every day and thus gets to experience life through so many different perspectives. You learn so many insights into the the old adage of walking a mile in someone else's shoes from A, but there is one that is permanently in my DNA.

“It’s so hard when you’re in one body to get a sense of what life is really like. You’re so grounded in who you are. But when who you are changes every day- you get to touch the universal more. Even the most mundane details. You see how cherries taste different to different people. Blue looks different. You see all the strange rituals boys have to show affection without admitting it. You learn that if a parent reads to you at the end of the day, it’s a good sign that it’s a good parent, because you’ve seen so many other parents who don’t have the time. You learn how much a day is truly worth, because they’re all so different. If you ask most people what the difference was between Monday and Tuesday, they might tell you what they had for dinner each night. Not me. By seeing the world from so many angles, I get more of a sense of its dimensionality.”

This struck me so profoundly. And it rang so true. And this slips to the forefront of my thoughts on any night that I may feel as though one or all of us are "too tired." While reading to my children each night has always been a top priority in our day, it has now become a complete non-negotiable. Even if we are all exhausted, we pull a poem anthology off the shelf and read a poem together. Even though I am in no way the target audience for this book, Every Day has heavily impacted who I am as a parent and our family as a whole. We all cherish these entirely non-negotiable moments each evening.

This is the best current example I have of how books can so completely become a part of your being.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

If You Let Them

In Penny Kittle's Book Love, she says that adolescents want to read, if we will only let them. By letting them, she means allowing the students to choose their own books and giving them time to read in class (at least that's the gist in a very tiny nutshell). I read Book Love twice over the summer, after having read it during the school year last year, and I believe so wholeheartedly in Kittle's style of teaching English/Language Arts that I have centered my classroom around it from day one.

My students choose their own books, we read every single day in class, and they get to watch their own growth toward a goal by keeping track of their reading with a simple class log that goes around at the beginning of class each day. I've had a few resisters, a few kids who have dared me to find them a book they will even be able to tolerate. I've mostly had success - still a few hold outs, but I am scouring for the right book for them and put a title into their hands every day, either because I think this book will be "the one" or just to show I will persist.

Yesterday, during my third block, we didn't just have independent reading time, we transcended. My students came in and dutifully retrieved their journals, took their seats, and began their Quick Writes. After we wrote and shared, we had 10 minutes of independent reading time before we began an assessment of Theme. When the 10 minutes was over, I announced that it was time to begin the assessment, explained that the rubric was posted on the SmartBoard, and began passing out the papers. A vast majority of the class barely looked up.

Some might take that as disrespectful, as students not paying attention, but when I saw what was happening, my stomach flipped - they were reading. Not just "let's get through this 10 minutes by staring at a page for turn" type reading. I mean "I can't even register what's happening around me because I am so engrossed in this book" type reading. Nancie Atwell calls this the Reading Zone. I hated to interrupt them, but the assessment was calling, and afterward they were allowed to return to reading, working in their journals, or peer conferencing. One by one, they finished (they rocked the assessment, by the way) and returned to their books. I had a few who decided to write, but mostly everyone made a beeline back for that Zone that they had been forced to abandon. I walked the room and conferenced and I walked the room in awe.

This may seem heavy-handed, but I need to explain. If you have ever been in a classroom with 28 or so 8th graders who are being forced to read, you can feel it. The tension, the struggle, and sometimes even the anger is palpable. This classroom felt like meditation; just complete peace. Finally, at 3:10 - five minutes before the first bell rang to go home - I called everyone back together to tell them how amazing they are and to ask if they realized that they had been in a SELF sustained state of reading or writing for over an hour? They were audible gasps; I saw several students look at each other in disbelief. A couple of girls pointed to the clock and laughed, then one said "The last time I looked, it was 2:15." She had been lost in Hound Dog True. This was really one of the most magical moments I've ever had as a teacher.

It was a moment that made me understand the power of reading and how our assertions that it can change lives is entirely correct. Was anyone's life changed yesterday as they read and wrote this way? Maybe not for my students - not yet - but mine was. Professionally, they validated everything I believe in and practice. This is not to say that every day is like this, or every day will be like this, or that I am some kind of super teacher - I just let them read. And Kittle wasn't kidding when she asserted that they want to.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Beginning of the Year Read Alouds

It's time to start planning out how I want to begin my new school year. I am at a new school that is much closer to my home and it is actually the middle school that I went through as an adolescent!

So, I've been re-reading Book Love with a fervor and trying to prepare. My first thought is how I want to set the tone for my year with these students and I think that my first novel read aloud will be Wonder. However, I'm trying to brainstorm some more picture books and further novels to read together as the year progresses.

I've gotten suggestions for Eli the Good and think that will be a great one to connect with my kids with a brilliant Kentucky writer and characters they can identify with.

What are you to be reading to start your year off right?