Sunday, September 21, 2014

Teaming Summer Reads

I'm reflecting on summer reading through October.
Link up if you'd like to join the conversation.

The tenth grade team had our first data meeting of the year with our principal last week. The team will meet every three weeks to review common assessment data and talk instruction. We are tasked with showing how students in a variety of categories perform on assessments. We disaggregate our data; then we meet and discuss it. For this meeting we talked about the essay we asked students to write about the one book on grade summer reading. Tenth graders read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. We only asked them to read the book.  The assessment the team devised was an essay prompt that asked students to explain how the novel develops one of three themes.

 We revised our assessment after previewing our state's new assessment. The team thought that by giving students three theme statements and a passage we would set them up for a successful writing experience.

We assumed:

  • students understood the concept of theme
  • students had written about theme in ninth grade
  • students knew how to use textual evidence in writing
  • students knew how to find evidence to support a given theme
  • students could embed textual evidence (paraphrased, summarized or directly quoted) in writing

In hindsight, we could have spent more time unpacking prerequisite skills. We could have also talked to the ninth grade as we planned our assessment. We thought students would be successful writing the essay in class.

What we discovered instead was that students did not know how to write about theme. They knew how to summarize the book. They knew how to use evidence from the given passage or the novel to tell the story, but most could not use evidence from the text to show how the theme develops.

This students' strengths include facility with words--a great vocabulary--and an ability to sequence events from the plot. My next instructional move is to help this writer use evidence to support the theme instead  retelling the plot.

Did students read? Yes. Were they successful on the assessment? For the most part, no. All six of us, retaught some aspect of the summer reading. The reteaching ranged from showing students how to embed textual evidence to how to structure analysis paragraphs. We all agreed that we will be teaching students how to do such writing well into the year.

When assessment does not match purpose students get lost. I think we know this, but it's a lesson we come back to time and again as we refine our practice. Still, we saw what students are able to do as writers who read.

My students are entering tenth grade with a host of writing skills. Students can:

  • paragraph
  • summarize
  • use figurative language
  • use a variety of sentence structures
  • use transition words to organize writing/ideas
  • write specifically about plot
  • sequence events 
  • loosely connect events to theme

There is a lot that students come to class knowing how to do. We're off to a good start. Now to build on it (and work as a team to on revising our grade-level summer reading for next year).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reading Contagion

Hosted by the team at Two Writing Teachers, link up
your Slice of Life 

on Tuesdays throughout the year.
Paul W. Hankins and Sarah Gross have been posting "High Point(s) of the Teaching Day" on Facebook. I love catching these glimpses into their classrooms. Light travels. Today my high point was listening to tenth graders, Mahammed and Kevin, talk about Sick by Tom Leveen.

Kevin is "patient zero" when it comes to being infected by Leveen's story. He read it first and he has been talking it up since. Mahammed just finished it. He handed it right off to another student even as his table mate clamored to be "next" to read it.  It's been read by three students in less than two weeks. That's the best kind of contagious. And they are still talking about it. That, I love.

Another high point in my day was finally getting students into the digital textbook. I finally had time to figure out what we'd been doing wrong getting there.  Learning a new resource takes time even for folks who are tech savvy. Just as I need time to learn, so do my students. I want to keep the idea that learning takes time in mind, especially  this time a year when it can seem like there is a rush to get things done and moving at the start.  I screen casted my demonstration today if you'd like to get a peek into our new resource.  Please forgive the multiple log on interruptions around 2:36 . Sometimes our server requests multiple log ons when we're using personal devices on the network and what works one way one day does not always work the next.

On the plus side students were excited to see the online book. They jumped right in, got through the multiple log on requests with their mobile devices and even figured out the highlighting tools using their phones.

Four textbooks, four devices. 
On a funny note, I just went to find the picture of Kevin reading Leveen's Sick on my phone and discovered I'd been photo bombed. Do you call it photo bombing when someone snicks your phone and takes a bunch of pictures of himself? I don't think students call it that, but I vaguely recall them calling it something. Blowing up the photos or the phone maybe? Tobi left about eight pictures of his face on my phone. I can tell he his standing at the computer station because of the light fixture above his head.

I've been taking pictures of students reading and of students' work in class and saving the images to their folders in Evernote, so I have my phone out on a work table a lot. I trust my students not to take the phone and can't help but laugh at the funny faces Tobi made on the screen. I wonder what possessed him to do that?

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Kale or Ice Cream: Choice and Summer Reading

My husband is an amazing cook. There are days I believe he could conjure a sauce out of dirt and rocks. He bakes bread: rye bread, wheat bread, sunflower bread. He's been known to brew beer, roast green coffee beans, pit smoke whole hogs.

Last week he made us patty melts on home-made rye bread just out of the oven. He sauted peppers, onions and mushrooms until they were just sweetened up in the pan. He topped the pressed beef patties with swiss cheese. Dropped the sauted vegetables on top then buttered the rye bread and grilled the sandwiches . Somehow that sandwich tasted better than one I would have made for myself. 

It's not often the same with books though, is it? When we pick books for students they often are not sweeter than the books students would have chosen for themselves. 

Last week Karen Terlecky wrote about a reader being slowed by a book she chose from four titles offered for summer reading.  Karen likened that struggle to a truck, engine screaming, crawling uphill on the interstate. Slow, the trucks struggle, but without their uphill climb where would consumers be?
We need those trucks to keep moving just like we need to vegetables for our health.

There are reading assignments that are slow like that uphill climb and if I switch the metaphor and think diet, those assignments are broccoli and kale. Good for me, but not my first choice.

I like kale, now. I used to think it was a bitter decoration. Now, I juice it, chop it, mix it into breads. I like kale now, but it took years of vegetable conditioning to develop the taste for it. Even though I like it, I don't want to eat it in every salad or with every meal. It's good, but let's be honest, it's not ice cream or popcorn.  As with any comparison, there are limits to my food analogy, but the obesity epidemic (and my own "summer slide" toward too many chips and Popsicles) seems very real evidence for balance. 

I must balance making healthy food choices with my love of chips and ice cream. If I am going to be healthy and or take off some of the stress weight I put on last spring, I've got to balance doing what I want to do (read and nap) and doing what I have to do (eat well and exercise). From a health and nutritional stance, this makes sense.

It was the kale salad at the Wicked Spoon buffet in Las Vegas that changed my
mind about eating greens. English teacher friends and I ate there during NCTE 2012. 

But it does not always make sense for readers. Yes, as an adult I have to read things that I absolutely do not find pleasure in (income taxes, credit card documents, legislation that impacts educators). If I am to be an informed citizen I must read about issues of community concern. I've got to read the manual to my car to trouble shoot issues with the air conditioner. I have to read all of the beginning of the year papers that my son brings home from school.  I have to read ingredient labels on soaps and cosmetics to avoid a chemical allergen. At work, I have to read about our teacher evaluation model. Not fun, such reading. It is, however, necessary. 

When we give students bounded choices or no choice at all in what they read for summer reading,  what's our purpose? Why do we limit readers to one book or one out of four? If my purpose is to keep students reading during the summer months then I can see where I need to leave title options wide open. Let them eat cake so to speak. Some students do not get that treat though.

Some high school students  must read particular titles. Do they really have to do that during the summer?  International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement students have required reading lists. College freshmen have required reading too. Locally, one year at Rollins College all incoming freshmen had to read Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. Several colleges, such as Smith, and others, continue  a one book one college required reading experience for incoming freshmen. Why? What beliefs do we share that says such common experiences are valuable, important even? 

My answer to that question is grade-level or age dependent. At some point in a students' academic lives, students must be able to read assigned works.  Even my child will have to read textbook chapters or discipline-specific content. Engineers, doctors, lawyers, repairmen, contractors, even dental hygienists, computer programmers, stylists or graphic designers do not get to their degree or certification through selective reading. They get there by completing requirements and becoming credentialed. 

When I think about bounded choice--giving students several titles from which to choose--I liken that to getting students to eat a little bit of kale in their pre-dinner salad. Students may not be as invested in a book they are directed to read. I am okay with that for high school students. I do not believe we  need to limit or constrain choices for younger readers though. Is that ageist?  No, it's practical. 

The common reading experience and constrained choice is a means to prepare students for the reading demands they will face in colleges and careers. But that preparation need not begin in the summer months. I keep thinking about purpose.  Did the classic choice assignment meet my purpose? How many students chose classics that are also films? What might that suggest?

I need to revise the choice portion of my summer reading.  I need students choice to be wide-open not constrained to a cannon they may not be prepared to read. That lesson in meeting reading demands  is likely best taught when I can work with students side-by-side, not during the summer months.