25 September 2011

"The New Normal" by Donalyn Miller

I recently discovered a great post on Donalyn Miller's blog. Mainly it's about independent reading, and how her classroom's "normal" is centered around books. In light of the state of the public system - low budgets, high expectations - independent reading can seem like a luxury.

I'm glad to say a reading culture in my classroom is my goal, and that I think I'm well on my way to it. After week five of the school year, I've already challenged students to read every day, write thoughtful letters to me based on what they've read, and - what's most important - they're actually doing it!

The writing prompts are intended to support the benchmarks, or indicators, they will be tested on come NCLB testing time. However, my students are also being challenged to think through the issues their books bring up. I'm not sure why, but this has come as somewhat of a surprise to me. I've seen thirteen year old students drawing from the abuse-filled life of David Pelzer - the author of A Child Called "It". Already we're getting at what literature should do for a culture, that is, speak for those who don't usually have a voice; in this way we live many more times over than we would if we did not read.

19 September 2011

A Late Education?

As an educator, I'm always in thought, and often in conversation, about what "works" for students. How do we get children to learn? Why do some children learn quickly, and others struggle? Often these simple questions are answered through "labels." That is, the child has behavioral problems, or learning disabilities. However, there are some who, in my limited experience, are simply behind. According to certain tests, or experts in our district, these students do not qualify for special help because they know just enough - and yet, are still vastly behind their peers.

I don't claim to have answers. Really, I just have questions. One of them is what if more school, that is, starting children in school at 3 or 4 years old, is actually harmful to educational development?

I just read an article from BBC News about the educational system in Finland. Finland, as of 2006, is on top of the world in reading and math (reading they're #1, math #2). And one thing they do differently is start children in school "late." According to the article:

"Children in Finland only start main school at age seven. The idea is that before then they learn best when they're playing and by the time they finally get to school they are keen to start learning."

I would add that being at home until that age has the possibility to give children a chance to build emotional bonds with their parents, which then acts as a springboard to other development. I teach over 100 students during my day, and many of those "low" achievers come from broken homes, and have been in school for many, many years. Would they have been better served if they had had the chance to be at home until they were seven? The numbers put up by Finland suggest they may have been.

The article also mentions that Finland lacks diversity, especially those children trying to learn a language and achieve in that second language. Their school system also combines secondary with primary grades, giving teachers longer to "get" to every student.

18 September 2011

Realistic Fiction: Three Books

In my last post, Teacher Resource: Independent Reading, I shared one of the writing prompts I have my students use when they finish a book from the realistic fiction genre. There are actually three writing prompts in all for that genre to match the three they are required to read (I'll post more later).

Because I believe my students should see as many adults reading as possible, and especially their teachers, I follow the same reading regimen as my students. I didn't plan on finishing all three realistic fiction books back to back, but that's only because I was sure Bridge to Terabithia was a fantasy.

Here's a few words about the first three reads of the school year:

Tinkers, by Paul Harding, was loaned to me by a fellow teacher. My goal is generally to stick to books that my students will pick up, or might want to pick up. However, when I started reading this one, I didn't want to put it down.

The story is centered around a man named George. He is just days from dying, and his ability to control his thoughts is all but gone. We learn about George's father and then his grandfather, and both histories highlight their paternal knack for failure, which is compounded by illness. And even though George is the main character, the portions about his father, who is a poet and epileptic, are what kept me attached to this story. With a delightful and beautiful style, Harding describes the plight of George's father, as well as his power of observation - which led me to believe that Harding is a poet himself. In fact, this is one I'll read again.

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean George, is quite a different book. Like I said, I want to read books my students will be likely to read. The story is very straightforward: Sam, an early teen, wants to get away from his crowded home and return to his grandfather's failed homestead to prove he can survive on the land.

In short, as the author states in the introduction to the second edition, Sam carries out what every boy dreams of doing. In fact, he does what I would like to do as a grown man - he uses his book knowledge (yes, my lovely 7th graders, books contain recipes for adventure!) and makes himself a tree-home, hunts with a falcon, and makes his own deerskin clothes. The book is filled with sketches that detail certain plants Sam eats, as well as some of his projects. This is one I'll be reading to my own boys.

I dove into Bridge to Terabithia fully expecting a fantasy, which just may be my favorite genre. I can't really say I was disappointed, just wanting to escape to another world. However, as I read, I did escape with Jesse and Leslie to their kingdom in the woods.

Jesse comes from a family of sisters who mostly take advantage of him, and a father who ignores him, and Leslie has just moved to the area and has no friends. The two of them rely on one another for comfort, and Leslie introduces Jesse to the wonderful world of story through Terabithia. On more than one occasion this book brought tears to my eyes, and reminded me of my responsibility to lift my sons up - even as simply as paying attention to them.

Thanks for reading.

13 September 2011

Teacher Resource: Independent Reading

All my students are required to read within certain genres, and as long as they follow the guidelines I provide, they get to choose each book they read. One of those requirements is that they read three books from the realistic fiction genre.

Once they've finished reading each book, they write me a letter proving they read the book; the letters are not a lot of work, but I ask them specific questions depending on what they've read.

Below is the prompt upon finishing their first realistic fiction book:

Reading Response: REALISTIC FICTION #1
One thing that moves any story along is characters. You should be familiar with the protagonist of your book, who is the main character, and the antagonist, who is the villain (or anything working against the main character).

You will include THREE things in your letter:
  1. Introduce me to the book’s protagonist – tell me all about him or her.
  2. Introduce me to the book’s antagonist – tell me all about him, her, or it.
  3. EXPLAIN how the protagonist and antagonist interact throughout the story. 
Like I said in my initial post about the reading goal (click here for initial post), I really like the letter writing format for differentiating instruction. Just this week I've had several conversations with students about what exactly a protagonist is; I've also had conversations about the same prompt, but the conversation is centered around a better description of the protagonist.

Feel free to comment upon the above questions or methods - I'm always open to suggestions. And also feel free to use these ideas as well! 

10 September 2011

Independent Reading for My 7th Grade Class

A new year brings a new stab at challenging my 7th graders to read their brains out. I've made some necessary changes for this year, such as requiring fewer books and more writing, and after three weeks, most of my 100+ students are off to a good start.

I started my students off last year with a hefty reading goal in the middle of January - after reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer (a must read for any teacher of reading - especially in the lower grades [5-8], and, depending on the class, for high school lit teachers as well). This year I hit them hard the first day (well, even before that - at our open house I made it very clear they were going to be challenged to read 21 books this year). Even though this year's students will have much more time to complete the reading itself, the writing part of it all is much more challenging this year.

For every book my students read they have to write me a letter based on the genre of their book. This was another thing Miller does with her classes, however, I have very specific prompts that are designed to hit specific indicators, and according to her book the letters she had her students write were based mainly on aesthetics.

I really like the letter writing for three reasons: it's a great way to communicate one-on-one with every student, a simple way to keep them accountable, and I can differentiate instruction on that same one-on-one level every time I write back. This includes pushing the students who would have read over 20 books anyway, and encouraging those who will barely finish 10 - or one for that matter.

Besides getting every one of my students to read, the most difficult part of this program is convincing my students they actually can sit still. Right at the beginning of each class period we read quietly for 15 minutes. After three weeks we're all settling in to the routine, but it has taken every day of that three weeks to do so. 7th graders by nature are not good at being still - and neither is the rest of our culture - but good and faithful practice does wonders. Of course, I will fight with a stubborn few the whole year, that's just the reality of the beast (I'll fight them on everything else I want from them too).

In future posts, I'll share what I'm reading as well, as I intend to complete the same 21 book goal.

Read about last year's attempt by clicking here: Reading Goal (along with yet another endorsement for George MacDonald).

06 September 2011

A Writer Waits: Week Seven

It seems like it was such a long time ago that I first sent my proposal. In fact, it seems like another life now that school is in full swing, and I'm thinking again about lesson plans and my hair is falling out because of classroom management nightmares. Summer was good on so many levels, not to mention a great time to write.

The agency I submitted to said to wait eight weeks before giving up (they didn't say it so bluntly, but they may as well say it that way). So, one more week and I can move on (okay, give up - on them anyway). The frustrating reality is I won't get to any new proposals until a nice break in the school calender. It's hard knowing I have what I think is something good to publish, yet I can't work on it during this season.

Interestingly enough, it's also a reality I'm learning to appreciate. I of the opinion that any writer should read more than write, and this season allows me to read with my students and look forward to coming back to my book with fresh eyes.

I'm reminded of a quote (I can't think of the source): something like, "The best thing that could happen to the craft of poetry is for poets to take a one or two year break from writing."

There's not enough observing, listening, thinking for much good writing to be created. So, I'll take a deep breath and wait. When I come back to my work, I'll be glad for the break.

Thanks for reading.
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