Reflections on 8th Grade Socratic Seminar

I’ve avoided Socratic or Harkness style seminars in my class for a number of years because I had honestly had very little experience with them and didn’t know how my students a discussion without me.  Kind of sad, I know.  This year, I made it one of my goals after hearing how successful it was in other classrooms, including the 8th grade Global Studies class that I frequently connect with.  I also have a group of students that love to discuss anything and everything, so I thought it would be a good year to start.  It hasn’t always been an easy process, but I’ve really started to feel like it’s working in the way I was hoping it would.  I thought I’d share my process and reflections on how I’ve incorporated Seminars into my English 8 class this year.

Practice Seminar 1:

  • I decided to start out with a practice seminar so that students could learn my expectations and also so I could figure out what I wanted to do before I assessed them.  We had been reading A Long Way Gone, so I based my questions off the memoir.
    • Prior to Seminar: I started by reaching out to my English department colleagues for resources and received a plethora.  These included planning guides, reflections, and rubrics, which I adapted to fit the need of my class.  I gave students about 35 minutes to work in class and one night to plan for the discussion.
    • Student Seminar Process: I have two classes of 18 and one of 9, so I created two questions for the bigger classes to discuss.  Thus, each seminar was a group of 9 students. For the larger classes, while one group discussed, the other group participated through an online chat. Students started the discussion by creating a group goal and then were free to go.  After the discussion, students reflected on their performance in a somewhat informal way.
    • My process: I created a chart of things I was looking for in the seminar (participation, building off a point, using evidence from the text, etc.) and tallied the student’s performance overall.
  • What Worked? What Didn’t?
    • Students had a good discussion because of the preparation they put in.  After talking to them, I realized that the students wanted more time to prepare.
    • Although I liked tallying the students performance and saw some benefit when I tried to create a grade, I felt like I couldn’t follow the conversation and see the depth of thought very well.  It was also very difficult to keep track of the conversation on paper.
    • Some of the students found it hard to find their voice and some found their voice too much.  Though creating the group goal did help somewhat, I realized I needed to do more work with students surrounding what it actually means to have a good conversation.
    • I found it really hard to grade.  Even after the students reflected, grading them individually was a real challenge, even if this was just practice, so I basically just didn’t!
    • Students that were not actively in the seminar but discussing online did a good job, but it was hard to follow the conversation, and it was also very easy for some students to get distracted by other online activities.
    • All in all, a decent start but still some work to do.

Practice Seminar 2:

  • I chose to do another practice seminar since the first one didn’t go as great as I would have liked and because I still felt like I needed to try some things with my students before I could adequately assess them and give them a good sense of what I was looking for.  For this seminar, students would examine the essential questions for The Book Thief prior to reading the book.
    • Prior to Seminar: I gave the students more time – a couple of nights and some time in class to prepare for the discussion.  I gave them the opportunity to use the same planning guides as I had before but also allowed them to use their own system if my resource didn’t work for them.  To help students think of ways that would help them answer the question, I gave them the opportunity to explore news media and social media to look for possible answers to our essential questions.  Students were also strongly encouraged to seek out evidence that didn’t match their opinion.
    • Student Seminar Process: I once again separated the students into groups of 9 but for the larger classes, students who were not in the seminar group took notes on a partner’s performance.  After the seminar, the outside group would then give feedback to the seminar group.
    • My process: Instead of tallying the student’s performance, I took notes on what each student was saying, thinking that it would allow me to reflect on the conversation and help me better assess the student individually.
  • What worked? What didn’t?
    • Again, the preparation was good.  Students had a lot of evidence and a lot to say.  It was sometimes hard for them to use the evidence to back up their opinion and they relied on lot on vague ideas, but they did have good plans.
    • I really liked having students observe other students.  After each discussion, feedback was given and it allowed the students to see that their were issues in their discussion, and particularly that they weren’t listening to each other or building conversation.  It also kept the non-discussing group very focused on the discussion at hand, and I could tell that they wanted to jump in.
    • It was helpful to transcribe what the students were saying but again it didn’t make it easy to grade.  I found it really challenging to be able to observe listening, participation, and behavior for 9 students accurately, so once again, I didn’t actually give a grade.  Thank goodness this was also just for practice.
    • After the seminar, I had students reflect on what would make the seminar process better and got a lot of good advice.  Students were also able to see their own problem areas.
    • One of the biggest thing I noticed in this seminar was a tendency for certain voices to dominate while others remained extremely quiet.  In addition, some students started to get dismissed or cut off if their voices weren’t loud enough.  Some changes needed to be made.

Official Seminar 3:

  • I knew it was time to grade an official seminar.  The students would discuss a question from our work with The Book Thief but that would also have them think about current events related to poverty and crime.
    • Prior to Seminar: Before our official discussion, I spent some time really thinking about how to make this better since I had a good idea of what wasn’t working.  Here is some of my process and changes:
      • I discussed various problems and potential solutions with students and had them discuss what they thought would work best for their class.  For example, I did not want to create two EQs for this seminar, so I wanted to come up with a way for students to discuss the same question without copying each other.  We decided to have two seminars going at once for the bigger classes and I would use video to track their conversations.  This would allow me to go freely between the two groups.
      • After talking with our current global studies teacher and my English department, I realized that I needed to stop grading my students individually but instead should grade them as a group.  This would hopefully take away their pressure to perform and would help them have actual conversations.
      • I created seating assignments for groups that tended to have more dominant voices.
      • One of my colleagues suggested I establish a moderator to ask questions and promote equitable discussion.  This person wouldn’t directly be involved in the discussion and would also work with the group to evaluate their own progress at the end.
      • I wanted the students to ask more questions as I feel like questioning is a great way to challenge someone’s point and get people thinking in a different way.  But my students were not good at this and really found it challenging in the previous seminars.  I decided that we would have a conversation only in questions.  We watched a TED talk and did just that.  Not only was it fun, my students realized that it slowed their thought process down, that you could make a point through a discussion, and that it actually added a lot to the conversation.
      • I felt ready.
    • During Seminar
      • I found a large space so that I could examine both seminars but students were far enough apart that they wouldn’t bother each other.
      • Students had had several days and a good chunk of class time to prepare.  I also had given them some sites to explore so that they could see the question beyond the novel.
      • I showed students the rubric I would use to grade them as a group and reminded them why we moved to the group assessment.
      • The moderator led the discussion, asked questions when necessary, and interrupted to make sure all voices were heard.
      • Halfway through the discussion, per the suggestion of my colleague, I had students reflect on points they hadn’t made but wanted to.  At this time, the moderator gave feedback to the group regarding areas of strength and weakness and even called a few students out on too much participation or not enough.
      • Students filled out more formal reflections at the end of the discussion and also completed an individual written assignment based on the essential question.
    • My process:
      • I simply walked around and listened. It was wonderful.
      • In my smaller class, I tracked who was participating so that I could show the group at the end.
      • I occasionally gave advice to the moderator regarding things he could do (call on kids to participate, step back, ask a question, encourage use of evidence).
    • What worked? What didn’t?
      • The  discussions were great, and so many more kids participated. It was clear that the pressure of the individual grade really hindered the students from having a conversation with each other.  Although it was still challenging at times, there was much better flow and I could tell that the students understood they were working together.
      • Students asked great questions.  The strategy we used in class really helped with this, and they even reflected that asking questions was a great way to promote more discussion.
      • I loved the use of the moderator.  Although a little more prep work would help them moderate better, overall it was very successful.  No one could hide in the group, and the moderator also was able to give great feedback.  At the end of the discussion, it was the moderator, with input from the group who evaluated the performance, and because they weren’t participating in the actual discussion, their thoughts were honest and accurate and they were able to help their group members see their strengths and areas to improve.
      • There is definite value to having two seminars at once but also to having students listen to each other discuss.  I think I will try both throughout the year.
      • Students are still having trouble using the evidence that they prepare and using it in a way to support their general thoughts.  This is something we really need to work on and I will have to model for them.
      • I am not stressing on assessing the students through a grade as they will be assessing themselves as a group and then their individual grade will come from their written preparation and their written response.  I not only feel at ease but also feel like their grade will be more accurate.

Overall, I am very pleased at how Seminars are progressing in my class and am so thankful for the advice of my colleagues.  I think it’s going to be a Seminar filled Semester 2!

Would love to hear your thoughts and approaches to Socratic Seminars, especially in middle school.

 

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How to Silence 8th Graders

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I love Brandon Stanton’s work.  I find it mesmerizing, inspiring, thought-provoking and countless other adjectives.  As I’ve delved into my own work around equity, I also find it a great place for me to further and challenge my own perspectives about the world.  I’ve wanted to use the site in my classroom for some time but couldn’t think about how I could without feeling like I was forcing it down my students throats. This past weekend, I finally figured it out.

We have been reading Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and I have been using this masterpiece of a novel to have my students examine the following essential questions (some for the year, others just for the unit):

  • What is the power of story?
  • How does an individual influence a community? How does a community influence an individual?
  • What do we risk by being apathetic? Where do responsibilities lie?
  • Why tell the story of World War II?
  • Are there elements of the Holocaust still alive in our world today?

We have been spending a great amount of time discussing how the book connects to our current world, specifically around ideas of poverty, privilege, and inequity.  Our discussions have been intense and memorable.  They are why I teach.

As I worked to produce seminar questions for students to wrestle with as they work through the novel, I knew I wanted them to think about our school motto “Achieve the Honorable” through the eyes of the book and considering our world today.

Liesel, the main character, and her friend, the beloved Rudy, are suffering through the Holocaust, are poor and desperately hungry. They steal food to survive but never, as the reader, do you feel like it is wrong for them to do so.  Liesel’s family, like many brave throughout Germany, also harbors a Jew, risking their own life to save another’s, something that people now consider an unbelievable act of courage.

My seminar question quickly became: Is crime and dishonesty ever okay?  An extension resulted in: What does it really mean to “Achieve the Honorable?”  I want my students not only to think about these tough choices that the characters had to make but to think about how examining these characters could help them better understand the choices millions around the world and in our own backyards have to face daily.

As I thought about resources I wanted to share with my students to help them grapple with these questions and to consider various perspectives, I finally realized that this is how I could use Humans of New York.  I happened to luck out as Brandon is currently interviewing prisoners at several New York City jails.  It couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned it.

A very few of my students had knowledge about the site or spent significant time visiting it. All it took for them to quiet down and become engrossed was for me to share the website.  I’ve NEVER seen my eighth graders, or any eighth graders for that matter, so quiet and engaged for a significant time period.  They did not talk.  They did not ask to get a drink of water.  They didn’t even realize when I needed to leave the room for a moment. In fact, they barely moved.  And when given the opportunity, they discussed and only stopped because I stopped them.

This week, they will try to become storytellers themselves and will harness their inner Brandon Stanton.  I cannot wait to see their results, and I cannot wait for them to answer our seminar questions.

It’s amazing what happens when people are given the opportunity to share their stories. It’s amazing what happens when people take time to read those stories.  It’s amazing what Brandon Stanton has done.

So thank you, Brandon, for not only inspiring millions around the world, but for helping my students think.  Thank you for quieting my 8th graders in the best way possible.

The Great 56: What I Read this Year

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I had set a goal of reading 75 books this year.  I did not make it – I blame the fact that I went on a close to two month reading hiatus where I just couldn’t get into reading.  Oh well!  I did manage to finish 56 books, listed and categorized below.  I provided some commentary for the ones I could actually remember!

I’m a bit heavy on the popular fiction and am going to try to branch out a bit more next year when 75 will be reached!

Thanks to OverDrive for letting me download books for free, thus enabling me not to go broke on books this year.  And thanks to Goodreads, for making it so easy to keep track of what I read!  I think I got them all.

My absolute favorite books this year. 

  • We Were Liars (E. Lockhart) – I adored this young adult suspense novel I read over the summer.  Kept me intrigued and surprised me in the end. Plus I loved the island setting close to Martha’s Vineyard – one of my favorite summer destinations.
  • The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah) – Great World War II read.  I am a sucker for this genre, and I have always liked Hannah’s work – though usually I find them more guilty pleasure readings and less thoughtful works.  This was both a bit of a guilty pleasure and a unique look at World War II.  Very well done.
  • Between Shades of Gray (Ruta Sepetys) – Another World War II read, this time by brilliant young adult author Sepetys, this book was recommended by a former student (with a note that it has nothing to do with 50 Shades of Grey).  It is a simply gorgeous book that I fell in love with.  Cannot wait for Sepetys’ new one this year.
  • Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Claude M. Steele) – This book changed the way I think about stereotyping and is a must-read for any teacher, or anyone really.  Fascinating look behind stereotype threat and the effect it has on various identities.  And I read this on the beach – that’s how interesting it is.  Please do yourself a favor, read this book, and grow.

Books that made me think.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) – This book was required summer reading for my 8th grade students’ Global Studies class.  LOVED it.  Laugh out loud funny while forcing you to think.  Gave me a whole different perspective to thinking about how to teach through a diverse lens.  This book also encouraged me to seek out other books that allow my students to see things from a different perspective.
  • Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology (Leah Remini) – I have loved Remini since Stacy Kerosi caroused on the Bayside Beach with Zach Morris.  I have also found scientology interesting but didn’t know much about it.  This book was fascinating, and though I know it is told from a single perspective, it made me question the practices of this so-called religion and whether or not Leah’s claims are truthful. I will be doing more reading on this subject, for sure.
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Patrick Lencioni) – Read this if you want to better understand how to work with others and what each team member brings to the table.  It’s short, funny, easy, and thought provoking.

Books that reminded me what it is like to be a young adult.

  • Out of the Easy (Ruta Sepetys) – an interesting look at life in New Orleans French Quarter in the 50s.
  • The Beginning of Everything (Robin Schneider)
  • The Impossible Knife of Memory (Laurie Halse Anderson)
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass (Meg Medina) – Fantastic book about the real threat of bullying in schools.  Piddy is a character everyone should read.
  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Jesse Andrews) – Another young adult book about kids with cancer.  I enjoyed this so much more than The Fault in Our Stars – it just seemed more real and less melodramatic (though I do love that book too.
  • Fangirl (Rainbow Rowell) – It was good; for me it wasn’t great.  Maybe because I don’t really understand the Fangirl world, I couldn’t get it into it. I found myself skimming through the Simon Snow excerpts.  But I know many adore this book – maybe it’s for a younger crowd.
  • I Love You, Beth Cooper (Larry Doyle) – Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it.

Books I couldn’t stop reading.

  • The Vacationers (Emma Straub) – Thouroughly enjoyed this read about a dysfunctional family vacationing in Mallorca.  Beautiful scenery, well-written, at times laugh out loud funny, and a great depiction of true family life.
  • Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) – I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book as usually I have a hard time with particularly gruesome war stories.  But this was masterfully written and such an amazing story, I couldn’t put it down.  Another World War II addition to my list and an inspiring look at the human spirit.
  • Where’d You Go Bernadette? (Maria Semple) – Fantastic, couldn’t put down book.  Her flaws make Bernadette easy to root for and identify with.  Original plot and superb characterization left me recommending this book to many.
  • Home Front (Kristin Hannah) – An interesting multi-perspective book about the relationship between a married US soldier deployed in Iraq and her stay at home husband.  Hard to put down.
  •  Defending Jacob (William Landay)  – I really loved this book.  So suspenseful and an ending I did not see coming.

Books I finally read. Continue reading

Student Choice Doubters – Read On.

There always seems to be debate amongst educators regarding how much choice students should have in their own education.  And although there has been plenty of research done by both psychologists and educators regarding how important choice to both  learning and motivation – Thank you, Alfie Kohn and Daniel Pink! – there still remains doubters.  I’d thought I’d share three stories that have occurred to me recently that made me once again appreciate how important choice is not only for students but also for their teachers.

  •  An “Un-conference”:  I am a member of my school’s vision steering committee and one of our main purposes is to help plan and offer faculty professional development that will both inspire and move us forward as we delve deeper into PBL and begin using a block schedule.  Knowing that in the past, teachers have had little, if any, say in what would happen on these days, our committee thought we would shake it up a bit by using the un-conference model. An un-conference, as its name suggests, is not a typical PD experience.  Instead of having pre-determined sessions and speakers, the day is created by those in attendance.  Individuals share topics of interest  and the schedule is created from this list of ideas.  (My colleague Dana Huff gives a great overview of our process on her blog if you are interested in how we ran this.)  In a nutshell, our faculty members had a significant amount of choice what types of sessions they would partake in. As a result, people seemed genuinely more engaged in the process, those who tend to be more reluctant to participate had strong voices, and I can speak from personal experience to say that I found it energizing and inspiring to discuss ideas that I found important with colleagues who felt the same way.  My discussions would also immediately have an impact on my teaching.  Most of us as teachers have sat through uninspiring PD.  Many of us may have only gotten through these experiences by checking email or playing Words with Friends.   Neither helps our students.  What does help?  Giving faculty members some choice over their own growth and trusting that what they will choose will be worth it.
  • Adopting independent reading: I had the privilege to participate in a week-long internship at The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), a school in Maine founded by Nancie Atwell, where I observed how to run a reading and writing workshop.  One of Atwell’s philosophies that is evident throughout the school and in any of her writing is the importance of choice in both reading and writing.  Students at the school have almost complete authority in choosing what they read.  In the middle school, where I spent most of my time, there are no class reads; reading skills are developed primarily through choice books and reading conferences.  At first I challenged this idea as I do see the value in having an entire class read the same book and think the discussion that results from doing so is important, I quickly changed my viewpoint.  The students there were incredibly well-spoken, had astounding analytical ability, and most importantly, loved reading.  And though I will not be giving up my class reads, I very quickly realized that I had to figure out how to also get my students to read books of their own choosing.  Though I had always encouraged my students to read on their own, I never required it, and their reading was dwindling. Using the CTL model, I  now expect my students to read for 20 minutes each night in addition to the 45 minute period we spend reading and conferencing in class once a week.  The catch?  They could only read books they found enjoyable.  Although at first some students balked at the idea, proclaiming that 20 minutes every day was far too much, it has not taken long to completely win them over.  My proof occurred this Tuesday, our first day back from a long winter break. As I walked up the stairs to my class, I realized my students were already present, so I got ready to settle them down, expecting them to all be conversing about their time off. Imagine my surprise when I see every student in the class frantically recording all the books they read over winter break into their reading log, proud of their achievement and eager to share their accomplishments. Not only did this happen in my first class but also my second.  Every student, even my most reluctant readers, finished at least one book.  One student finished as many as eight.  Books ranged from the latest John Green to a Tom Clancy thriller to Animal Farm.  Not only are they choosing books that are enjoyable but they are also picking ones with high literary merit.  During our combined reading workshop the following day, 10 of my students presented book talks; it is obvious they are starting to love reading and are not afraid to show it.  Their vocabulary is improving.  Their writing is getting stronger.  Their understanding of what makes something a valuable piece of literature is developing.  It is hard for me not to beam with pride.  I’m finally achieving what I sought out to do when I decided to become an English teacher: share my love of reading with my students and help build theirs.  I don’t for one second think this would have happened if I told my students exactly what book they had to read over vacation.
  • Allowing student choice in writing:  I have always been a firm believer in allowing students as much choice as possible in their writing.  I have had my students blog every year for the past six years and typically allow them to blog about any topic of their choice as long as it remains school appropriate.  In doing so, I am often amazed at what actually interests them, how they see the world, and how much better they voice their opinions and put together an argument when the topic matters.  In the past few weeks, my students have written editorials on topics of their choice which have ranged from the Richie Incognito scandal to gay marriage to child labor.  I was a little nervous when one of my students decided that she was going to defend Miley Cyrus – really, how can you defend her, I asked – but I was glad I let her go with it.  Her final product argued that although what Miley was doing at the MTV Video Music Awards wasn’t great, the focus was completely on Miley and not on her “twerking” partner Robin Thicke. She went on to discuss double standards and maintained that the focus should be on the demeaning nature of Thicke’s song, which many believe is about rape.  Many people might fear, and I’ll acknowledge I did a bit, that when an 8th grader decides to defend Miley Cyrus that their argument will be immature and lack substance.   This was not the case here.  I gave this student expectations regarding the assignment and she surpassed them. And because she was writing about a topic that mattered to her, her voice was strong and her writing sound.  Amazing.

What prevents us from allowing people to choose their own paths?  Trust.  When we tell people how to act or what to do, it is because we assume that they are not able to figure that out for themselves or that they are going to make the wrong decision.  They might not choose the best workshop or pick the best book or write something of substance.  They don’t know what’s best for them.  Therefore, we have to do it for them.

Now, I am not someone who believes that an 8th grader should determine every aspect of their academic career.  I, as a teacher, also know that I cannot control absolutely everything about my curriculum or job.  But I do realize how  important it is for me to have some choice in my learning process.  And how much more enthusiastic I am about the process when I do.   Honestly, my students are not that different.

A Must Read: A Letter to my Students

Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden
Photo Credit: Judy van der Velden

Dear Students,

Recently, I’ve asked you to read for at least 20 minutes a night, and not just any type of reading, but books, preferably fiction – novels.  Some of you have balked at this, rolled your eyes, sighed heavily, screamed bloody murder, and likely cussed me out behind my back.  None of this bothers me, by the way.  But I did feel like I should explain to you not just why this is so important to me but why it is so important for you.

I initially thought I’d overwhelm you with all the statistics that back up my point.  I’d share some of the research that proves the amount of pleasure reading done in the past 10 – 15 years has dropped significantly, directly impacting college readiness. I’d cite the information from Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide that: “Reading for sustained amounts of time is essential for building the parts of your brain that think deeply” and discuss how online reading does not build these skills.

But then I thought to myself – you won’t care about the research.  That won’t make you listen.  You’d just think you’re the outlier – that this doesn’t apply to you.

So I knew I had to take a different approach. I knew I had to somehow show you the power a book can have, how 250 pages could, quite literally, change your life.  And then, as I was sitting watching talk shows with my grandmother, it hit me…Still Alice.

About five years ago, I picked up a novel at Barnes and Noble with this title. Now I’ll be honest, I initially picked up the book because it was on the buy three books get one free table, and I was short one.  Little did I know how consumed with the book I would become and how, five years later, it would constantly be on my mind.

In her early 50s, Alice Howland, a brilliant Harvard professor, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease – a quick-moving, insidious condition.  Alice goes through her daily life knowing that her memories are dying, knowing that she will not get to see the milestones of her family, and knowing that she may have passed on this horrific gene to her children.  This is Alice’s story told from Alice’s perspective.  It is her struggle to live, and it is heartbreaking.

Never have I been so connected to a character in all my life.  I felt what Alice was feeling; I laughed with her, and I cried with and for her.  It didn’t matter that I had never directly known anyone with Alzheimer’s.  The story was so heart wrenching and the character so vivid that it was impossible to finish without feeling like I was losing a friend.   In fact, I was so moved by the story that I actually remember posting on Facebook that everyone must read this book.  Yes, this is what English teachers sometimes post on Facebook, although it was the only time I ever did.

As many of you know, my grandmother was recently diagnosed with a form of Alzheimer’s disease and she has begun to lose her memory.   Like Alice at the beginning of her journey, my grandmother is still aware that something is amiss, yet she’s not completely gone.  She can’t understand why her memory fails her or why she cannot live the life she’s used to.  And although she remains good natured, I know that at times this is frightening for her, more frightening for her than for me.  I know this because of Alice Howland.

Alice’s struggle has helped me support my grandmother’s struggle, and ultimately my own. Alzheimer’s is a frustrating disease for all involved.  But when I find myself starting to get angry, or tired, or sad, I take a deep breath and remember Alice, what it was like for her, and what it may be like for my grandmother.  Sometimes I don’t feel like I picked up Still Alice off that Barnes and Nobles table.  Sometimes I think it picked me.

At the time, I had no idea what this novel would give me beyond a well-written story.  Sure, I could read loads of articles and message boards online about Alzheimer’s, and I do, but none will ever compare to Still Alice.  Alice gives me strength.

You see, novels don’t just build critical thinking skills; they allow you to fall in love and become friends with a character, help you see things from a different perspective, teach you about life in a way that an article cannot.  Novels can, as cliche as it sounds, touch your heart.  This novel, like many others, touched mine.

Will this happen with every book you read? Not likely.  But I can almost guarantee you it will happen with at least one.  Maybe you’ll remember Atticus Finch and Boo Radley when you need to be courageous.  Maybe thinking of Steve Harmon will help you make a better decision. Maybe reading Ishmael Beah’s story will ignite your passion.  Or maybe reading a book about a woman with Alzheimer’s will help you cope .

This, my dear students, is why you must not just read for 20 minutes, but must read stories…why you should try to find a book and a character that grabs your heartstrings and attaches to your soul.   This is why you MUST read.    Because, really, you’ll never know what book will pick you, until  you do.

Summer Reading Blog = Writing Pre-Assessment

Photo Credit: Gibson Regester
Photo Credit: Gibson Regester

Just Say No to Book Reports and Yes to Blogging!

I wish I could remember the name of the graduate school professor I had who facetiously made this statement about book reports – “Yes, the first thing I want to do when I finish a great book, is to make a diorama” – because that really struck a chord. Not that there’s anything wrong with dioramas per se, but like many, usually when I read a great book, I want to process it and talk about it.  I do not want to make a mobile of important characters and symbols (is it bazaar that I can still picture the mobile I made in third grade but have no idea what book said mobile was on) or run to find the nearest empty shoebox.  Thus, in my attempt to stop destroying reading for my students, I have tried to change up the dreaded summer reading project to hopefully! make it a bit more interesting.

In the past few years, I have asked students to write a book review of the various required readings that they have done, and although I don’t think this was a bad approach, it really only allowed me to view their writing once school had already started.  This was helpful but would have been more beneficial over the summer when I try to do a lot of planning.  So, in trying to work “smarter not harder,” I have dropped this activity and instead am asking my students to respond to some discussion boards via our classroom blog.

Although I firmly believe in having students create the content on the blog, for this summer blogging experience, I have asked students to respond to questions I have created, seeing as the majority of these students have not done any form of blogging before. Basically, I am using the blog as the means for threaded discussions.    Below, you will find my process for creating the posts regarding our summer reading book The Book Thief.  You can also check out our Summer Reading Page and feel free to add to our discussion if you have read The Book Thief!

Thoughts about Process:

  • Why a blog and not Schoology or something similar: If this were done during the school year, Schoology discussion boards would be a great tool, but seeing as the summer is a time to create new classes and archive previous information on the site, I felt this activity would be easiest with something I could easily control and that was also very simple to use for new students.
  • Optional “I’m confused” posts:  The Book Thief is a fairly long book that can sometimes be confusing due to the unique narration style.  I decided to create a few posts allowing students to ask questions regarding the book as I didn’t want them to continue reading not having any idea what was going on.  So far, these haven’t been used, and they may not, but at least the students (and parents) know they are there if need be.  I monitor all posts, so students can respond to their classroom’s questions but if there is an error in information, I can easily delete the post.
  • Limited number of discussion boards:  I will be teaching a small class next year of about 48 students.  I did not want to have so many discussion boards that there ended up being little discussion.  I also wanted to make sure my students responses to said discussions were varied and not repetitive.
  • Required number of sentences per posts: I’ll admit that this is something I hemmed and hawed about as I am not a firm believer in this approach.  However, I do not know these students all that well nor they me.  They do not know my expectations, and I do not want them to “mess up” because they didn’t understand what I was looking for.  Requiring a certain amount of sentences and providing models for what good responses look like makes sure that students are taking the easy out and also makes sure they provide enough information that I can use as pre-assessments.
  • More  required responses to classmates than individual thoughts:  I want my students to read what their peers are writing.  This will allow them to see a book at a different level.  If they are only writing down their own thoughts, they will never stop and read what their classmates have written.  So, I can guarantee that they will read at least four of their classmates thoughts simply by making this requirement.
  • Models, Models, Models:  It’s no surprise that I just finished Kelly Gallagher’s Write Like Us, a book that discusses the importance of modeling while teaching writing.  I have provided many models of both good and bad comments so that my students know exactly the type of writing I am looking for. Continue reading

YA Book Review: The Fault in Our Stars

I sat in bed the other night, crying giant ugly tears like a baby.  No, no one had died.  I was not severely injured or waking from a nightmare and there was no major tragedy going on in my life. I simply was reading a beautiful book with a bright blue cover.  John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars was a superb, heart-breaking novel that, though intended for young adults, could be read by anyone who searches for characters that are complex and easy to adore and plots that are both sophisticated, intriguing, and real.

Photo Credit: TheNerdDilettante
Photo Credit: TheNerdDilettante

I remember reading Lurlene McDaniel’s books about cancer when I was younger.  These books were everything a pre-teen girl could want – filled with love, sadness, and drama.  No, they weren’t award winning, but I adored them and likely read every single work that she wrote during that time in my life. Green takes a different approach to writing about cancer patients and does not hide the hideous ugliness that cancer paints on its victims.  This is what makes this book special and why you are able to fall in love with his characters.  Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters are not just two teenagers in  a book that fall in love while dealing with cancer, they are characters that come to life and force us to really understand how horrific disease can be for youth and all those who connect with them.  Most importantly, it allows us to see that cancer, no matter how hideous it might be, does not define who you are, no matter what your age.

We don’t like to think about children or teenagers suffering from a disease that makes it difficult for them to walk or breathe or forces them to confront their own mortality.  But that doesn’t hide the fact that this is the life of some of the youth in our world.  Green honors these children with a beautiful story by creating an incredibly smart and witty heroine who, even though you know her inevitable fate, you root for.  And although cancer obviously factors in to the story, ultimately, this is not a story about cancer – it is a story about friendship, love, and the great ability that humans have to affect their world and each other.  That’s what Hazel and Augustus are able to do – they make life better for each other and the people that they meet along the way.  No, their life is not easy, but it is still life and they must learn to live it.

Although I do think this book is best suited for students high school and beyond, I believe that it is a book many would enjoy.  I often judge a book by how deeply it affects me and grabs at my soul.  This one not only grabbed it, but held on for quite a while. The fact that I finished it within the last two weeks and already want to read it again should also be a good indicator of how much I enjoyed it.  Though at times it is difficult to read in terms of emotion, – you will laugh at loud and may cry some ugly tears – it is very, very worth it.

Yup, Teachers Fail Too: A Letter to My Students

Photo Credit: young_einstein
Photo Credit: young_einstein

Word of the Week: Failed.

New Year’s Resolution: Failed.

I didn’t plan on purposely failing my New Year’s Resolution, to blog daily, the same week that the adjective for our class blogging word of the week challenge was “failed.” It was merely a poetic twist of fate. I had all intent to fully commit to my goal, to stay up late in the night if needed, quoting Shakespeare and sharing my wondrous wisdom (sarcasm) with the world. Unfortunately, need for sleep and my obsession with spotlighting the WA English Blog to the masses won out over sheer desire, and I haven’t actually submitted a true blog post – until now – in about 10 days.

I am typically not one to make resolutions, and – never one to be cliche-  if I do make them, I follow them.   But this was something I really wanted to do.  I had committed to this challenge so that you, my precious students, could see that I believed in the value of blogging and to show you that even English teachers can grow from continued practice. Now, don’t think that my failure is an escape from your monthly blogging assignments, and that I am going to come in to class and say, you know what, this blogging isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.  I’m not.  I still LOVE blogging and am amazed at the work you have produced.  And even if you aren’t admitting it to me, I know that many of you really enjoy it too. Instead, I  am writing because I want you to realize something about failure – if we don’t fail, we don’t grow.  OK, sometimes I enjoy a good cliche.

I now realize that my goal was too lofty, that I do not have the time or energy to commit to blogging every day.  I also know that in trying to write daily, I was struggling to find things to write about, and, as a result, the quality of my posts was not as I would have wished.  But I also let you down in the process because this is something I wanted you to see me do.  Perhaps I made a little “Jerry” mistake – you know, our buddy from The Chocolate War.   Perhaps I didn’t really think about my decision before I committed to it and by going in blindly, I set myself up for failure. I realize, now, after the fact, like Jerry did, that I made a mistake.  But unlike Jerry, I am not giving up.  What fun is that? And what kind of teacher would I be then?!?!  So instead, I am re-evaluating my goal and thinking about how I can make it happen.

My new goal is simply to try and blog each day, to at least think about it.  If I can think of something to write about, I will.  If I can’t, I won’t force it.  Each night, before I shut my computer down to do a little leisurely reading – who am I kidding,  if it’s Tuesday, I’m watching Dance Moms – I am going to sign on to my blog and see what comes of it.

There might be days when I post five times and days when I don’t post at all.  Maybe I’ll get to 365 posts by the end of the year.  Maybe I won’t.  I do know that this is an approach I can handle and that I will both grow as a teacher and an individual from doing so.  

In the past, I might have let my failure get me down.  It would explain the 8 blogs I have attempted and since deleted – one post does not a blog make.  But not this time.  Not with you watching.   This time it is going to help me succeed, which is what I hope for all your future failures.

Using iMovie to Preview a Text

Photo Credit: Mike Licht
Photo Credit: Mike Licht

Most books geared toward teaching reading acknowledge that activating prior knowledge and providing frames of reference are essential to achieving deep comprehension. This does not just mean teaching information essential to understanding the setting or plot but also means giving students necessary information that will help “frame,” as Kelly Gallagher refers to it, their reading. For difficult literature, this is especially important as it helps students have a better context for what they read.

Prior to reading a text, I will spend time with my students examining the title, reviewing the back of the book, the cover, and the first line of the text as a way for them to think about what they read before actually reading it.  In addition, I create iMovie trailers of the book for the students to view.  These, I believe, have been especially helpful and give the students a good context of the story.  They also, if done well, can really work to get a student interested in  a story they may otherwise find burdensome.

The key benefit to making a trailer is that it can be adapted to connect to the goals of the unit. For example, I want my students to focus on the ideas of power and corruption when reading The Chocolate War, which I was able to emphasize in my movie trailer.  The trailer can be used to make predictions prior to reading the novel and can be shown again throughout the novel to confirm or negate these predictions or as a means to remind students what they should focus on while reading. Frequently, my students have referenced the movie trailer in our discussions of the book, as it did help give them a sense of the story before they read it and allowed them to make connections.  In addition, it is a great source for visual learners.

Below is the iMovie that I made for The Chocolate War to give you a sense of how I use it in the classroom.  Some clips were taken from the actual film that were found on YouTube.

The Chocolate War Preview from LIaccarino on Vimeo.

Although I did not use them, I do think the iMovie templates found on iMovie 11 could be very helpful for a novice user. Teachers could also use iMovie trailers as a way to extend a novel by having students create them after finishing a book. All in all, I find this a very good strategy to prepare my students to better understand their reading.

Camera Photo Credit: Mike Licht

How Online Grading Made Me a Better Teacher

Photo Credit: Nedral
Photo Credit: Nedral

I have used Google Docs (now Drive) in the classroom for about six years now, and I can honestly say that it has improved my ability as an English teacher probably more than any other tech-related tool.  I could list a bunch of different reasons why I think it is something that every student and teacher in the country should be using, but perhaps that will come later.  Instead, I want to discuss its ability to allow me to grade better and offer more detailed and specific feedback to my students.

I did not start out by grading online even after the first couple of years of using Google Docs, mostly because it seemed a bit tedious.  As an English teacher, it was frustrating to have to add in things like commas and then change the color so the student knew that I had changed his work.  It was easier for me to just grade by pen.   Despite this, there were times when I would provide feedback and grades online, and even when it was somewhat burdensome, I realized that the quality of my comments was much higher – largely because I could type faster than I write, write more, and not be held back by the writer’s cramp that most English teacher can identify with after grading a stack of 60 three-page papers.

My students appreciated the feedback online as well.  They didn’t have to worry about figuring out my cursive/print style hand-writing, easily could identify which portion of the paper I was talking about as Google Docs highlights the section of the writing attached to the comment, and didn’t have to worry about losing the paper if they wanted to go back and see prior mistakes.  Their positive response made me realize that even if it was at times tedious, the good far outweighed the bad.  Plus, it became tremendously helpful for me to be able to have a record of my comments that I could look back to when writing grades and assessing future work.  I didn’t have to worry about making photocopies.  And when I needed to find a previous piece of writing, I didn’t have to search through the stacks of paper still waiting to be filed at the corner of my desk.  Do teachers actually have time to file??  Everything was neatly arranged in folders that students had created and shared with me on Google Docs.  Portfolios? Check.

As I began to solely grade papers online, I also realized that I was doing too much for my students.  Fixing sentences with poor punctuation, re-writing structures to help students get them to sound right, or pointing out every single mistake did not help them – especially when for the most part, they didn’t re-write their final drafts.  Now, instead of identifying every mistake, I focus on things I am going to be assessing and color-code student’s work in terms of the type of error they make.  For example, spelling or mechanical mistakes are highlighted blue and sentence structure mistakes are highlighted in red.  Students then must go back and figure out the type of error they made – with help if necessary – and re-write the sentence so it no longer contains a mistake.  This forces them to actually think about what they did wrong and, more importantly, it puts the corrections in the hands of the person who needs to know how to fix them, and it makes my students more independent and responsible for their own learning.

I will, of course, continue to grade online, but also know that sometimes I wish I had a pen that I could add symbols like arrows or stars to what I am grading.  This is why I was so excited to see that there is an app soon to be coming to the iPad that will allow you to mark-up a Google Doc with a stylus.  The app is called gradeonipad and I, personally, cannot wait for the email to come through that says I can give it a try.  With this app, I can’t imagine why any English teacher would continue making his/her students print out papers that they are then forced to carry home if they had the option.  And even if you don’t have access to an iPad, give Google Docs and online grading a try.  Trust me, it’s worth it.