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?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sharing: THE REAL BOY by Anne Ursu

Most of my favorite books feature main characters who are "other." By that I mean, the character is somewhat of a misfit and feels like they are not in sync with the rest of the world around them. In most cases, though, they find out that their feelings of being out of sync are due to the fact that they are "other." Harry was actually a wizard; Percy was actually a demi-god; Peter, Lucy, Edmond, and Susan were rightfully kings and queens of a magical land. Their feelings of being different were justified and ended up being the result of something unknown that made them incredibly special.

In The Real Boy, Oscar feels like a misfit. He is an orphan and a  magician's helper who happily spends his days in the shop cellar mixing just the right herbs and plants to create powerful effects for the shop's customers. When he is forced upstairs to deal with customers, he finds that his feelings of other-ness are only confirmed by people openly finding him odd. However, his journey upstairs leads him to his first friend, aside from his clowder of cats - Callie.

Together, Oscar and Callie unravel the mystery of something plaguing the perfect children of the nearby Shining City, something that Oscar thinks may be the answer to why he always feels out of place. As Oscar and Callie explore their history and the deeper motivations of those around them, Oscar discovers that there is much more to him than he or anyone else ever realized.

This beautiful story of friendship and accepting each other and ourselves for who we are is an unbelievably perfect follow up to Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu. Oscar's struggles with who he is will resonate deeply with middle grades students who are in the throes of becoming whoever it is that they will be.

Who Should Read This?
This is a perfect 10-14 read, but would be enjoyed by anyone who likes fantasy, fairy tales, and very good friends.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sharing: The Apprentices

The Apprentices is Maile Meloy's follw-up to her stunning first book for middle grades, The Apothecary.

The book picks up two years after the Janie Scott and Benjamin Burrows part ways, with the help of some memory-erasing elixir. Janie is a student at a boarding school in New England. Ben has been traveling the world, helping his disillusioned father, the apothecary, care for people in war stricken areas, such as Vietnam. The entire crew who saved the world in the first installment has splintered and gone their separate ways with differing priorities.

Ben tries to remind his father of their larger purpose, which is attempting to save the world from the possibility of an atomic bomb, but a series of failures leads his father down a different path. All the while, Ben can't stop thinking of Janie and finds a way to connect them over thousands of miles and dozens of months.

Meanwhile, Janie is dealing the repercussions of her own scientific success, doled out by a vindictive roommate and the roommate's ambitious, malicious father. She is also confused by feelings for a boy who is kind, but is not Ben. Eventually, Janie and the Burrows are brought together again in circumstances just as dire and exciting as the first time.

This book is an incredible sequel to the The Apothecary and is one middle grades title that you won't want to miss!

Who Should Read It?
This book is a solid MG title with the ability to interest emerging YA readers, as well.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sharing: Doll Bones

Doll Bones centers on three young friends who live in Pennyslvania: Zack, Poppy, and Alice. The trio have been friends for years and the tie that seems to bind them most strongly is an ongoing, imaginative game of pirates, mermaids, and grand adventure that they play using action figures. All of the adventure is controlled by the iron, but imaginary, fist of a creepy bone china doll that rules their play world as Queen.

When Zack's trying-too-hard father decides that twelve is too old to be "playing," he throws out all of Zack's action figures, effectively ending what was promising to be the friends' best story line yet.

When the Queen begins to let them know that she isn't quite ready for their imaginary world to come to a close, Zach, Poppy, and Alice must decide their own fate by choosing to refuse a belief in magic or risk the wrath of their ever-demanding Queen.

This book is at once chilling, mysterious, and aching. The three friends are repeatedly struggling against the forceful wave of growing up and losing the magic of childhood. But is it really their choice, or the will of the Queen, that will turn the tide?

Doll Bones is a recent release by Holly Black, published by Simon & Schuster.

It's a solid 10-14 middle grades read. But, truly, who should read it? Literally everyone.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Summer Reflection Round 1: The Mechanics of Project Based Learning

Freedom, Fearlessness, and the Mechanics of PBL

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you’ll never do anything.” - David Foster Wallace

First thing every morning of the week, I teach a group of students that are in my middle school’s gifted program. These 8th graders are a joy. They challenge me and keep me sharp; they can hold intense and meaningful discussions with one another. They made my first-year classroom a wonderful place to be each and every day. This group of students is full of varying personalities with eclectic interests that they pursue with zeal, ranging from military hardware to old school R&B. They are also - nearly universally - afraid of being “wrong.”

When I first discovered this, it was mind-boggling. Any time I gave an open-ended assignment, I was met with a tidal wave of frantic questions and even anger. For example, there were many mornings that my Bell Work (Do Now, Starter, Bell Ringer...) assignment would be a Free Write for 15 minutes. Sometimes there would be a prompt, but more often it would be an open invitation to put pencil to paper for 10-15 minutes. They wigged. “How long does it have to be? What do we write about? Are you serious?” Eventually, they learned that I wasn’t trying to trap them and that they really could write about whatever they wanted and however they wanted during that time. Due to this unstructured writing time, I saw students write several songs, many different types of poetry, short stories, and scathing rants on various injustices of the adolescent experience; I also saw students who remained paralyzed by not having set boundaries, criteria, and points-for-things. This was the catalyst for my foray into Project/Passion/Performance Based Learning (PBL).

From then on, I wanted to help my students understand that learning was so much more than being “right.” In fact, it is typically quite the opposite. I wanted to help them understand that the most learning takes place when we are wrong, when we can handle being wrong, and we try to find out the right answer. When I began our grade level’s PBL pilot, I was met with major resistance from a large number of the students who felt that this was too abstract and therefore too difficult. They were given a rubric, a questionnaire to help get them to their topic, and then time, resources, and guidance to create a project, answer a question, or solve a problem that they had come up with all on their own. The results were powerful and I do believe that many students finally got a small taste of what real learning feels and looks like.

Due to this experience, I began reflecting on the rest of the instruction that my students were receiving. We are highly recommended to teach the 3.5 method of writing, with graphic organizers to pre-write, simply due to the fact that it is tradition and it is what is popular with Pearson at this particular time. However, writing doesn’t actually look like this. I don’t know any writer that whips out a graphic organizer when they begin a new project. The writers I know are constantly scribbling jumbles, phrases, doodles, quotes, or whatever it is that has struck them and inspired them to consider it further by writing about it. I realized I wasn’t teaching my students to write; I was teaching them to follow directions just like they have always been taught.

Five paragraphs with a thesis in the introduction, a paragraph for each of your three main ideas, and a strong conclusion.

I realized then that our obsession with the uniformity of the product has caused a deep corruption of the very personal process. Let’s compare learning to fixing a car - you don’t go into the shop and make certain that the mechanic followed every step in a manual in the precise order; you judge success by whether or not your car is working - THE FINISHED PRODUCT. There are key components which MUST be in place (very particular parts placed in a very particular way), but if the mechanic has to do those while standing on her head or in a wonky, true-to-her order, as long as the finished product is steller, who are we to dictate every step of her process? More artistic pursuits prove this even further; who would tell Julia Child that she had better follow pre-formulated recipes step-by-step with no deviation or she would be doing it WRONG? So how did we get to this place where learning and writing and reading are concerned?

The big argument against more open-ended learning pursuits is making sure that students are engaged and productive, and of course how it will impact their test scores. But here is the beautiful thing about PBL and more authentic learning processes:   even if time is wasted, their project bombs or never gets off the ground, reflection at the end is required and it is KEY. Learning is STILL taking place, even if the project fails (and maybe even more so). Learning is relevant and real, because it is more than an assigned set of points - it is the reality of NOT doing something well or thoroughly and being met with real and relevant consequences, such as realizing you don’t know something and figuring out a way to do it better next time.