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Match up: texts, teachers, and students

The back of the cereal box of our times?
The back of the cereal box of our times?

This morning I promised myself not to touch either hand-held device, my cell phone or i-Pad, for at least five hours today. So far, so good. Lately I’ve acquired the odd habit of setting up arbitrary goals for myself, little mind games where only I know the rules. For example, in June, I told myself ‘no beer for a year.’ I really like beer, and though not trying to punish myself, just wanted to see if I could do it. Last night it got a little tricky because all I wanted to do was go out for a beer and nachos with my hubby, and instead we went through Dairy Queen drive-through and I traded a beer for a Peanut Buster Parfait. I have about one to two of those a year, so I guess I met my quota. Dang, it’s only July, too.

The other goal I set for myself was to try to do Camp NaNoWrMo. It’s July 7, and that means 6 days of only blog writing, which “doesn’t count.” All that’s happened is I am acutely aware that I haven’t written any drafts of fictional substance for months, and I’m overthinking everything. Too distracted, too grumpy, too much caffeine and not enough water. Focus, woman! Focus!

via GIPHY

This post is born of the fantastic Facebook pages/groups I’m honored to be in, specifically Notice & Note. Subscribers/members tend to post two types of questions: ‘What are some good text suggestions for X age group/Y skill or literary device,’ and ‘Does anyone have any suggestions on how to track student growth?’ I’ve already explored my plans for The Book Whisperer’s ideas, and am very excited about the how/why.

Now for the ‘what.’

I can’t read anymore. If a real, paper and bone book is in my hands, I have misplaced my reading glasses, or the light’s too far away, or I can’t get comfortable. If the text is on my Kindle, no problem, except something is kind of broken right now in my reader brain. Perhaps the paradox of choice is hitting me. I have too many unread books. Or perhaps it’s related to the ideas in this article, Why Can’t We Read Anymore by Hugh McGuire . And now I realize when I was gaming too much or flitting between devices, my brain seduced my actions with dopamine:

So, every new email you get gives you a little flood of dopamine. Every little flood of dopamine reinforces your brain’s memory that checking email gives a flood of dopamine. And our brains are programmed to seek out things that will give us little floods of dopamine. Further, these patterns of behaviour start creating neural pathways, so that they become unconscious habits: Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh,dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains.

How can books compete?

Well, this blunt and honest conversation will take place at the beginning of my school year with students, that is what digitalization has done to their brains. All of our brains. Last year, my students who were readers were the ones who tended not to have a lot of television or screen time (remember those hippie parents, back in the day? Who didn’t have TVs? I gasped in bewildered horror anytime I came across a situation like that.)

Is the same thing happening to (other) teachers? Are teachers just not reading as much as they used to, grabbing a few YA novels or short stories, and curating them for themselves? Or it is just a means to share tried and true texts with one another? Probably the latter. But there may be some instances where it’s the former, or perhaps I’m projecting my own failings.

novels

I have my list of books/stories to share. I have an extensive classroom library, both hard copy and digital. There are apps and sites galore to help teachers find texts. There are news outlets, story sites, like This American Life, Storycorp, The Moth, Radiolab, etc. to explore, to name a few. It would take a lifetime to read or listen to all the infinite stories. Sites like Artifact App and CommonLit help educators ask the essential questions to guide reading, too. And there are still libraries, with real librarians, who love nothing more than to talk and share ideas about texts. But that involves getting out of my bathrobe and the house. Hmmm. Tough call. (Oh, like you’ve never hung out in your robe until 1PM on summer break!)

 

Artifact App
Artifact App

 

So what are we teachers looking for when we ask others about text suggestions? We’re looking the same things as when we recommend books to other adults. We want something relevant, that may speak to us, that we can find some universal truth, or help us connect. And this is where the digital dopamine can’t help us: texts, be they on the screen or paper, give us a much more powerful sensation than digital ones. Helping students understand these important brain functions will help them understand when a person hurts them on line, it feels real because our brains don’t know the difference. We want to share stories, and that drive gives me hope, for my students, and for myself.

McGuire writes:

I am reading books now more than I have in years. I have more energy, and more focus than I’ve had for ages. I have not fully conquered my digital dopamine addiction, though, but it’s getting there. I think reading books is helping me retrain my mind for focus.

While on the hunt for great texts, I plan on using my powers of digital organization and keep track, make a list, and add notes. But for the moment, I’m just going to make a sandwich.

 

 

 

 

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Read the book, dummy.

 

Noticed:

I belong to the Notice & Note Facebook group, and it’s marvelous. Teachers helping other teachers, all grade levels (but predominately K-8), finding books, helping with lessons/units, etc. The big focus is on Kylene Beer’s and Robert Probst’s new book, Reading Nonfiction: Notice and Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, and therefore embarrassed myself a bit by one of my questions in a post. A teacher named Lisa Roth put together this PowerPoint intended to share with staff. (I hope she doesn’t mind if I link it here: if yes, I’ll take it down post haste.)

While reading through her presentation, what caught my eye was the idea that ancient stories or ‘campfire stories’ are nonfiction. Campfire and ancient stories are something I’m very familiar with, having created units on early human story telling for 8th grade, that ties in with the World Studies history. At least I thought I was an expert, but according to Beers and Probst, campfire stories are non-fiction. I asked for clarification, and Roth’s interpretation of N&N Nonfiction makes sense: those stories were meant to inform. Yes, they were. They were origin stories, creation stories, explanations for the beginnings and the endings of things. That makes sense. But–and here is where I ran out and clicked on the book link to buy it–I can imagine teaching the context of genre and how genre shifts with new knowledge is going to be critical.

But before a rush to judgment, I will be reading with a lens that my personal theory is not all campfire stories were meant to inform. Or rather, humans didn’t need to hear and share stories with pure entertainment and escapism value. Nonfiction connotes such dryness for me, and that’s wrong. And I am going to check my bias, because more likely than not, my students believe stories as if they were factual, and it’s time to deconstruct that notion. Think about it: urban legends, social media comments, texts –they are not meant to entertain, but to state opinions as facts.

I remember when introducing Greek/Roman mythology trying to put it in context for students, and dancing around a theological line: these gods and goddess died because no (human) believed in them anymore, but at the time, the cultural belief system was as strong as any current religion today. Some students, occasionally, would suggest we bring back Zeus and Hera.

Perhaps there is another word, a portmanteau, that integrates fiction and nonfiction: truthiction? Stories intended to inform but are based on limited knowledge? Maybe I’ll leave that one up to my students next year to discuss and decide. Yes, I think that’s best.

Here is a better idea: if stories are meant to inform, enlighten, or motivate, then perhaps a unit on civic engagement is in order:

Summer Readings to Inspire Teachers about Project Based Learning with Civic Engagement by Steven Zemelman

So while I’m waiting for my copy of Notice & Note, Nonfiction version, I’ll be brushing up on my legends and mythology, and continue to dig out the truths in those stories.

If you’d like some dedicated nonfiction articles about storytelling and ancient humans, here are some links:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/09/ancient-campfires-led-rise-storytelling

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/late-night-conversations-around-fire-might-have-shaped-early-human-cognition-and-culture-180952790/?no-ist

Oh, and I started a Youtube Channel:

love youtube channel

 

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Deep down.

deep diving
Underwater Cave Diving by Viktor Lyagushkin www.flowcheck.es

 

Today I was observed for the last 40 minutes of my last class of the day on the first day back from winter break, and that was perfectly fine. I trust my evaluator completely and know that the feedback I receive will be informed and valuable. In our time -constrained worlds, though, I am not sure I’ll have the opportunity to tell her all the things leading up to the moment where she came in.

So here is where I get to reflect–this space is a good thinking space.

Today I began a unit I created from scratch. I use the steel-cased, reinforced, V-8 engine with multiple air bags of UBD, or Understanding By Design. It’s adaptive, flexible, and meaty. For my vegan friends: packed with protein.

Since I’m Humanities this year, and love cross-content, real-world connections, this past summer, before news of Zika broke out, I thought I would do a yellow fever unit, and how diseases impact history. My Enduing Understanding is: “Disease shapes the course of history, and often societies’ responses to health/disease are culturally based.” One of the essential questions is: How did our new nation handle health/disease?

And I’m using a classroom set, with an in-class reading of Yellow Fever: 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. I could only get my hands on 30 copies, so I told the students a few things:

1. We only have 30 copies; I can’t get more (a book angel gave me her 12 books from her classroom library, so now I have a few extras: bless you, book angel!)

2. We will work on stamina: stamina is the ability to focus on text during a time. The reason we work on stamina is mental training, just like we’re training for a sport. It’s endurance. It’s getting in the zone and not wanting to stop reading.

3. I told them my insights about students who say “I HATE READING.”

*They hate reading because they kept reading logs

*They hate reading because they don’t have choice

*They hate reading because someone shamed them when it was difficult

*They may struggle and not know why

But this is what got them: I told them no baby is born hating to read. Every baby loves to communicate, to look at their parents’ faces, to babble and blurb, and every baby loves stories. 

They became believers. But they also don’t know how much I have to fight this current trend of just reading passages. Robert Zaretsky, who teaches at the University of Houston, wrote this article, “Taught to pass tests, they don’t know how to read books” concerning how college students are ill prepared to read and discuss novels. 

Today, we are reaping the results of this strategy. Among its many catastrophic consequences has been its impact on student literacy. Like a koan riddle, we might soon be asking if a textbook war can take place if no one knows how to read. The decline of reading among American youth is reflected by a growing raft of books with titles like “Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It,” “Why Kids Can’t Read” and “I Read It, But I Don’t Get It.” These books, written by teachers, confirm what my conversations with my brother-in-law, a bright and dedicated Houston-based high school English teacher, long ago revealed: Forced to teach to the test, he can no longer encourage students to reach for the texts as sources of wisdom and wonder.

 

I am trying not to let that happen on my watch.

Close reading has an important place in instruction, there is no doubt, because…it’s not new. It’s as old as stories themselves. So I created a quote log that serves a few purposes: it provides 3 lenses to consider:

1. The author puts a quote at the beginning of every chapter: why? How is it significant to the chapter once read?

2. Talk about character/plot events: how are the characters responding to the events?

3. Look through the medical/health lens; was there anything in this chapter that related to health?

They will not be doing this alone. We will read independently, and burst forth with conversation. We will learn everything we can about the medical practices of the time, and how science and superstition can devastate or be our savior.

And they will read the entire book.

A few kids are hooked after the first chapter: who can’t relate to a pouty teenage girl who’s annoyed her nagging mother is waking her up to do chores? This response is universal.

One thing Zaretsky may want to try is what I did– remind his college students they love stories. And if he wants them to read stories worth telling, which he does, they will.

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…the unbearable lightness of knowledge…

My dining room table will be spotless by day's end. This is phase three of the GREAT BINDERING of '15
My dining room table will be spotless by day’s end. This is phase three of the GREAT BINDERING of ’15

There is a popular how-to book going around the ‘net now titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. Since I have invested a lot of time and energy in breeding and care of dust bunnies, this topic doesn’t interest me. When the dust bunny farm goes south, perhaps I’ll give it another look. I kid, I kid. A synopsis spiraled around, and the one thing that stood out for me is the concept is don’t clean by area, clean by topic. For teachers, this is huge, and something I’ve always practiced: when moving or cleaning out a classroom, things go in categories: book genres to supplies, etc. It tends to work. Only when cleaning out the BOOK ROOM (this is a big deal) over my years as curriculum leader (aka department head in some academic circles) did I ever trash a few titles that were truly pulp, and not worth the paper they were printed on. I would have like to have gotten ride of Jackie’s Wild Seattle (ugh), but kept it in case it was anyone’s pet book. So far it has about as much charm as a dust bunny with fleas.

But here is something I did not expect: a debate about a classic title such as Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.

And do NOT comment on this full disclosure: I haven’t read the book (yet). Bet I’ve read a few books you haven’t. This one missed me because of my age and place in school–and that is the moral of this post.

This isn’t about my life as a reader, but our students’ lives.

I know this book meant a lot to a colleague of mine, and shaped her thinking about science. She is one of the exemplary science teachers I know. She introduced me to Ray Bradbury’s story, The Veldt, one of my new favorites to use with students.

To share the conversation, consider your own practices of purging through the mindset of “decluttering” —

book discussion 1 book discussion 2

 

I found one commenter’s remark curious, about ‘supporting’ my friend’s decision to purge this title. It ignited so many thoughts:

  • I’ve had six new administration teams and this will be my tenth year of teaching. Each admin team has a vision and new ideas, and we as a staff have had to adjust to the new ‘house rules’ every time, layered with change of guards in professional development focuses, and all the other changes inherent in modern teaching practices. This is my clutter I purge every year. Not books. Yours may be books, or dried up markers, etc. 
  • I have my own ideas about ‘reading lives,’ and considering a time-line of my own reading life. Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Blubber, and Forever by Judy Blume were transformative texts for me; their relevance to students now may seem laughable. But that’s not the point: when I share Harriet the Spy to students, explaining what happened to me, more than one student would ask if I had a copy of it.
  • We all worry about stamina, that students do not pick up books. If we don’t open them for them, they never will. They will see them as traps. How do we break this notion that time spent with a book is wasted, that they have something ‘better to do?’ 
  • Do you know that movies now have a different frame rate than in years past? So much digital and media noise comes at our students constantly, no wonder they can’t sit and read a book. By the time many of my students are in 8th grade, they are not embarrassed at all by stating they do NOT want to read a ‘chapter book’ –and where are the pictures.

What went wrong?!

Nothing, really. Many students DO read, ask me about books, will not only finish a novel, but read it again (talk to me about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline). The trick is not to purge all the reading from all the students: like the Japanese decluttering books, look at readers as topics -help them craft their reading life, and recognize not every reader will be a reader of novels. Offer interest surveys, genre options, and let the book fit the reader, not force the reader to the book. Those are ideas that are timeless and sustaining.

And thank God for Judy Blume.

Postscript: I’m moving classrooms this year. More floor space, but no cupboard space, and there are no existing whiteboards. I’m going to have to change a lot to make it work.

*no whiteboards*

via GIPHY

 

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WIHWT: Green Angel

Green Angel by Alice Hoffman
Green Angel by Alice Hoffman, 2010

Are there books or texts you desperately want to teach, to introduce, yet never find the right moment? The place in the curriculum, scope and sequence, where a text resides permanently in outlier territory? Green Angel is one such novel for me. This Wish I Had Written That, authored by one of my favorite writers, Alice Hoffman, tells a powerful story of loss, identity, and regrowth. It’s short, only 116 small pages, and is one of those stories that still leaves me aching and in awe over the human spirit. Some say it’s a parable for the events of 9/11, and while that may be the case, it’s themes lend themselves to catastrophe and devastation over time and space.

Some guiding questions:

Closely read the colophon: Describe the structure of the text, and question why the writer requested this. (Buy a copy of the book or review on Amazon to understand this lens–do not want to impede on its copyright laws.)

Closely read the introduction–who is speaking? What are they telling us, and in what timing? Why did the writer use this pacing?

Heart

This is how it happened I once believed that life was a gift. I thought whatever I wanted I would someday possess. Is that greed, or only youth? Is it hope or stupidity? As far as I was concerned the future was a book I could write to suit myself, chapter after chapter of good fortune. All was right with the world, and my place in it was assured, or so I thought then. I had no idea that all stories unfold like white flowers, petal by petal, each in its own time and season, dependent on circumstance and fate. The future is something no one can foretell. My family had always lived on the ridgetop above the village in a county where days were sunny and warm. At twilight, dusk wove across the meadows like a dream of the next day to come. People said we were blessed, and maybe that was true. My father was honest and strong. My mother collected blue jay feathers, preferring them to her pearls. My little sister, Aurora, was as wild as she was beautiful. 

Hoffman, Alice (2010-02-01). Green Angel (Kindle Locations 11-19). Scholastic Inc.. Kindle Edition.

 

There are multiple themes to discuss. Keep in mind not to steer students’ thinking to ONE big idea–there are multiple discussion points.

“Or that the book is a commentary on the value of our memories. All rich books have several themes. When a teacher predetermines “the” theme, the teacher also predetermines the students’ thinking. So what do I mean when I say I want students to generate their own thinking? Let’s return to The Giver, for example. Before reading the novel, I would have told my students that there were several large ideas imbedded in the text and that their job as they read would be to identify one or more of them and to track the development of the ideas. After reading a few chapters, I would schedule a day for the class to revisit their reading. Instead of assigning a theme to track, I might put them in small groups and ask them, “What’s worth talking about in this chapter? What big ideas are beginning to emerge?” ”

Gallagher, Kelly (2015-02-28). In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in the ELA Classroom (Kindle Locations 2873-2879). Stenhouse Publishers. Kindle Edition.

I highly recommend this secondary-level novel if you’re doing any teaching discussing and considering loss, identity, destruction, regrowth, sibling and family relationships, etc. Add informational texts from 9/11, and use StoryCorp and This I Believe to hear real narratives. It’s an opportunity to compare how the writer crafts a narrative to tell a ‘true’ story, and how truth, fact, and opinion often live together.

Ah, what a wonderful world with so many stories to tell…

 

Postscript: Writing opportunities–

*Write a brief analysis of how the writer introduces the main character, and how this supports style/craft.

*Write a quick narrative introducing the story from the sister’s point of view.

*Write a news report of the events.

*Write a perspective from the attackers’ point of view.

Suggested Standards:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Craft and Structure:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.4
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.6
Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.
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