First Days of School and Scheduling

We went back to school this week which means I have been overwhelmingly busy.  Our district redistricted which resulted in my school, previously grades 4-6, becoming a sixth grade-only school.  This was a first for the district, so teachers, parents, and students were in complete chaos!  The first day was definitely tough, but the second day calmed down.  Hopefully, next week it will all even out and we can begin teaching.

This year I will have approximately 100 students.  I’m already a little overwhelmed by the prospect of grading that much.  But I’ve been working out a new schedule and think I have a few ideas.  If any of you also teach language arts for 50 minute periods (4-5 periods/day), please let me know if you have any advice!

I will be teaching language arts to 4 classes each day for 50 minutes at a time.  Until this year I had almost 2 hours to teach language arts daily so this is a huge change.  I’m still angry about losing my time (and feel like it is so unfair to my students) but I am committed to doing the absolute best I can for them.  I’m planning to teach reading for 3 days and writing for the next 3 days, alternating all year long.  This will allow me to continue teaching with reading and writing workshop.  I also plan to have two classes doing reading while the other two are doing writing, hopefully allowing me to spread out the grading a bit.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that this year’s class will not get the scope and depth of instruction that previous classes have received.  However, I will continue with my read-alouds daily and booktalking.  I already do very few whole-class novels and I will continue with those.  But the 50 minute periods will force me to focus on my mini-lessons and not get off-topic.  This year will take a lot more planning but I think I can do it!

How do you schedule your middle school language arts classes?

Reading in Middle School: Choice, Independence, and Community

It’s been a crazy few days for reading in the news.  First, I was devastated to learn that Reading Rainbow has been cancelled and its final episode aired on Friday.  I remember watching Reading Rainbow often as a child and singing the theme song even more often.

“Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a  look, it’s in a book…”  I can still picture the opening credits in my head!

According to vice president for children’s programming at PBS, Linda Simensky, “research has shown that teaching children the mechanics of reading should be the network’s priority…”  This breaks my heart.  It’s just another example of the mentality that mechanics and how-to takes precedence over why reading (and often writing) is fun and enjoyable.  As a teacher I can promise you that enjoying reading has taken my students to new heights and in my experience is just as important as those mechanics.  If you hate reading it doesn’t matter how well you can read, you still aren’t going to pick up a book.  And if you struggle with reading it’s hard to see a reason to enjoy it. It saddens me that PBS no longer sees teaching the enjoyment of reading as important but I plan to continue teaching and modeling that enjoyment in my classroom.

After reading about Reading Rainbow I was I was thrilled to see the “reading workshop” approach to teaching getting publicity with an article in the New York Times.  Motoko Rich’s  A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like isn’t ground-breaking- reading workshop has been around for decades- but any publicity for this way of teaching is good publicity in my opinion. There are thousands of teachers out there who are unfamiliar with the workshop approach, don’t believe it can work in this age of standardized testing, or don’t feel confident enough to take the plunge. Hopefully this article will encourage a few more to try it in their own classrooms.  Presenting students with choice in reading opens new worlds.  I have the anecdotal evidence from my own classrooms as do many other teachers. You only have to read my literacy surveys at the beginning of the year and the end of the year- you’ll see the difference in my readers.  Speak to their parents.  More importantly?  Speak to my students.  Having a choice in their reading leads to enjoying reading!

I don’t agree with every single thing in the article, just like I don’t agree with every single thing Nancie Atwell or Lucy Calkins preaches.  Lorrie McNeill, the teacher in the article, doesn’t believe in any whole-class novels.  While I use them (very) sparingly, I agree with Monica Edinger (a fourth grade teacher) that they can be very valuable.  Adults read with book clubs, so why not students?  I do agree with McNeill’s opinion that too many teachers overteach whole-class novels.  That’s the problem.  But this is why I love the workshop approach- you do what works for you and your students.

My teaching was shaped by my student-teaching experience.  I was extremely fortunate in that I taught at a Teacher’s College Reading & Writing Project school in New Jersey.  I attended staff development and saw the workshop approach work over my two semesters in third grade there.  My cooperating teacher was an inspiration and I’ve never looked back.  Nancie Atwell, Lucy Calkins, Kelly Gallagher, and so many more have been inspiring me ever since.  But my reading workshop isn’t identical to anyone else’s.  I teach 100 sixth grade students in 55 minute periods.  I have to modify the system to fit my classroom and my students.  For the record, I do think reading workshop works at its best with small classes for larger quantities of time, like McNeill’s classes.  But we all work within the parameters of our district.

Here’s a broad overview of my sixth grade reading workshop:

  • Independent Reading- The cornerstone of my workshop.  All of my students are required to have a book with them at all times.  We read in class, while I model by reading or conference with individuals.  At the beginning of the year I spend a lot of time modeling reading while easing into reading conferences with my students.  Our minilessons are related to each child’s independent book because I focus on comprehension strategies which can be applied to all books instead of lessons tailored only to a specific novel (a la the numerous novel guides out there).  My students begin the year with in-class reading logs while easing into letter-essay responses.  They also keep an at-home reading log that is collected once each month as a quiz grade.  The quiz is pass/fail and everyone passes as long as the log is turned in.  The logs, and later letter-essays, allow me to keep track of each student’s progress and help guide them.  I also have individual reading conferences with each student along with numerous informal chats in the hall, during homeroom, and hopefully online this year!
  • Read Alouds: Can you have two cornerstones?  Because read alouds are equally as important as independent reading in my class  We are always reading a book together.  This is a “for fun” book, as I tell my students.  They aren’t quizzed, tested, or graded.  What they rarely realize is how much they are learning from my modeling, thinking aloud, and our class conversations.  I choose books that they class wouldn’t normally choose to read on their own and the books are always a few level above my average reader.  We usually use Newbery buzz as a guide, trying to read the Newbery winner before it is announced in January.  Of course, we also read picture books, non-fiction related to the content areas, and numerous articles.  This year’s first read aloud? When You Reach Me.  See here if you are interested in what we read last year.
  • Whole class books:  The dreaded whole-class novel.  *shudder*  We do read books together.  These are different from our read alouds because the students are responsible for these books (tests, quizzes, or projects). One of the reasons I grade the activities attached to these books is because my students will experience reading class this way from 7th grade until graduating college.  It’s my job to prepare them.  We normally  read Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting as we learn to annotate text and dig deeper. We read literary articles about the novel, including Horn Book’s amazing interview with Babbitt, “Circling Tuck: An Interview with Natalie Babbitt”. We also read Lois Lowry’s The Giver as we debate euthanasia, free choice, and so much more. Every year it is a wonderful experience. And nothing beats hearing kids moan and groan about a “boring book” before we begin reading it and then listening to their devastated reactions when Jesse and Winnie don’t end up together or debating whether or not Jonas made the right decision.
  • Book Clubs- We study the  Holocaust at each grade level (4-8) as part of our district initiative.  We read and research different aspects of the Holocaust before students break off into book clubs of their choosing. The groups read a variety of books, fiction and nonfiction, about different aspects WWII.  They take notes, do further research, and then present what they learn to the class.  Every year I learn something new and the students are able to dig even deeper into aspects of the war they might not have been familiar with before our book clubs.
  • Primary and secondary sources- Our students participate in National History Day each year and I love introducing them to primary sources!  Connecting with history through those who actually experienced it turns on so many students to research and helps them overcome the dread attached to the word “research”.

This is only a brief, very brief, summary of my classroom and my personal approach to reading workshop.  The reaction I get the most when I mention I use reading workshop is a frown followed by, “Don’t your  students just read “junk books?”  Of course.  However, they aren’t junk books to me or those students.  They are gateway books.  I watched this year as one of my most reluctant readers  read Twilight, followed by all of its sequels, every other vampire book she could get her hands on, and then Sarah Dessen, Laurie Halse Anderson, and eventually Wuthering Heights!  One person’s junk is another’s treasure, and that same junk opens up a whole new world to readers.  And that’s also why I am sure to include all the other aspects of my reading workshop- read alouds, book clubs, and even whole class selections.  My students are surrounded by books and words at all times.  Each book connects with each student differently.

Reading workshop works so well because it can be personalized by each teacher.  Every classroom is different.  Just check out some of these other responses around the blogosphere:

-Monica Edinger’s In the Classroom: Teaching Reading
-The Book Whisperer’s The More Things Change
-Lois Lowry’s I Just Became Passe’
-Meg Cabot’s How to Foster a Hatred of Reading
-Kate Messner’s Heading Off Book Challenges

The Fate of Reading

Yesterday on Twitter I followed a link to Musing of a Book Addict’s post Venting About The Fate of Reading and Reading Teachers.  As I read her post, I felt myself growing more and more frustrated.  Sandra laid out her own anger with the canned and scripted reading program she is expected to use with her 7th and 8th graders this year.  While I despise scripted programs this part angered me the most:

If they finish a lesson early they may read one of the following books from the program’s library: The Tiger Rising, Johny Hangtime, Bird, The Boy Who Saved Baseball, Night of the Twisters, Every Living Thing, Locomotion, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup.
Only these 8 books – OR -They may read either the Kids Discover Magazine, Cobblestone Muse, Faces or Odyssey Magazine or Footsteps. Of course they (the program) have picked the approved topic such as Bridges, climate, fairy tales, Chemistry of chocolate, or Folk Art.

On day 5 and 10 if they finish their computerized lesson they are to go to the online book cart (part of the program) and pick one of their selections and read it and test on it and then go to their online books (part of the program) and read a passage and test on it.

If at anytime they finish all of the above the only other approved book is their required novel from their Language Arts class. 

WHAT?!  First of all, there is nothing wrong with The Tiger Rising, Johny Hangtime, Bird, The Boy Who Saved Baseball, Night of the Twisters, Every Living Thing, Locomotion, Granny Torrelli Makes Soup.  However, there is no way on earth those eight books will connect with all of the program’s students.  They are great books but students should be able to choose from the thousands and thousands of middle grade and YA books out there to read.  Who chose those 8 books?  Which students are they meant to speak to?  What about the students who won’t connect with those books?  

And then if they happen to finish all those books they can then read their novel for language arts and only that class novel.

Personal choice means nothing? 

Students can’t be trusted to choose their own books?

I spend the beginning of each year teaching my sixth graders how to choose books.  For a small handful of students the process can take almost the whole year.  However, they are capable of choosing appropriate books that they will enjoy once they are taught how to choose those books.  How do we expect students to grow into lifelong readers if we teach them that they can’t handle the responsibility of finding their niche in the world of reading?

The program Sandra’s district has implemented actually states that all pleasure reading is to be done at home.  What a laugh!  It’s the rare student who will take time out of their night to read a book for pleasure if their teachers don’t model the importance of pleasure reading in school.  If we don’t show that reading deserves to be done and is important in our daily life then students won’t make that judgement on their own.  My students read independently every.single.day. I make sure to carve the time out of our school day and they then carve out time at home.  It’s a reciprocal relationship.  If it is important to me it becomes important to them.

But what upset me even more in Sandra’s post were her anecdotes about the other teachers in her district who are blindly accepting the canned program.  In fact, they are glad to have it.  Upon hearing that Sandra read books for her students over the summer, they actually responded with disbelief and almost-horror.  Why on earth would a teacher do that “crap”, as one of the teachers so eloquently put it?  

You want to know why Johnny and Johnae can’t read? We have too many teachers willing to let administrators spend thousands of dollars for canned programs that list the benchmarks and what to say and even have the lesson plans written up. That way they don’t have to do anything. 

We need to stop this.  There is no better way to get students reading then putting books in their hands.  BOOKS.  Not basal readers, not graphic organizers, not workbooks.  Actual, physical, paper-and-glue books.  Real novels and stories, not those written specifically for test prep and canned programs.  Literature.  For the past three years I have been growing readers in my classroom, as Jen says, and I do it with nothing more than a classroom library and booktalks.  My students still learn and use the comprehension strategies, they write about reading, they hold conversations about their books.  In fact, they go above and beyond what the scripted programs ask for.  I have extremely high expectations for them and they meet those expectations every year.

Does this mean I have to write my own lesson plans, read professional literature, keep up on children’s literature, and do a little more work?  Sure.  But it’s what is best for my students and it’s what has been working for the past three years.  How can you be a reading teacher and hate reading?  How can you think that reading from a script and never deviating from it is what’s best for our students?!  If all we need to teach kids is a script, then hire a robot instead of a teacher.  Or sit kids in front of a computer.  All you will get is a generation of test-takers.  Sure they’ll pass the standardized tests but they won’t be lifelong learners and they certainly won’t be readers or writers.  And where would our world be without readers and writers?

Whether you are dealing with dormant readers, developing readers, or underground readers- literature is the way to go.  In fact, it is the only way to go.  As teachers we need to get the message out to administrators and politicians that we don’t want these programs!  Instead, the millions of dollars spent annually on reading programs should be funneled to school and classroom libraries.  We should be booking author visits, connecting students with real live writers and creators.  We should be buying novels, graphic novels, realistic fiction, non-fiction, every genre of books for our schools.  We should be exposing students to real text with real stories.  Not some 5-paragraph garbage written for a computer reading program with 10 multiple-choice questions that dig no deeper than recall on Bloom’s Taxonomy yet we call it “everyday text”.  Ridiculous.  Everyday text is made up of what we really read everyday- books, brochures, recipes, signs, newspapers, and so much more.

Books are the answer.  Real reading makes readers.  

Not scripts.

Not programs.

Teachers + books + students

=

Lifelong readers.

 

Student-led Book Clubs

Over the past few weeks, two of my students have been holding their own book club.  The two best friends decided they wanted to read my single copy of Gone. For the first few days they shared my single copy- two heads bent over the book during independent reading. After a few days, I noticed they had two copies. When I questioned them, they said they went to the library and requested a copy, interlibrary, so that they could read next to each other but also “take the book home to read without fighting”. Before this year, they told me they hadn’t been to the library in years.

Every day while we read in class, I watch these two girls move next to each other, open their copies of Gone, and silently turn the pages. They talk about the book with each other and with me, coming to me to share their responses and exclamations. I LOVE IT!

I didn’t require that they read the same book. I didn’t even suggest it (knowing I only had one copy). Instead, they took it upon themselves to have a book club. It’s amazing the power that social reading has. Why don’t we harness this in more classrooms and use it? Students reading, recommending, and talking about books is more powerful than any literacy kit, basal reader, or literature set.

Writing in Script

Do your students struggle to write in cursive?  Is it a huge chore for them to write in script instead of printing?  I know my 6th graders not only hate script, but struggle with the script alphabet at times.  I’m interested to see this is a nation-wide issue.

Opensourcereading.com

A few years ago I stumbled upon one of my favorite message boards- Scarlet Nation (Rutgers Sports).  I read the boards daily and feel like I have gotten to know John, the founder.  John is also a phenomenal teacher who blogs over at A Community of Learners.  He recently began a new venture that I suspect will become huge in he next few months.  As he describes it best, I will quote him:

There are dozens – perhaps hundreds – of books that discuss the basic principals behind the reading workshop and other programs that stress the importance of independent reading. There are also many groups and individuals who charge a hefty fee to share their knowledge of the program.

At the same time, there are thousands of teachers who are “in the trenches” with the reading workshop every day. Many have more practical knowledge than the authors who are writing texts and the staff developers who are delivering the high priced presentations. That is where opensourcereading.com comes in.Open Source Reading is an online community for anyone who teaches reading. The focus at this point are grades 3-8.

our philosophy: Children make the most progress when they spend large blocks of time reading “just right” books and sharing their texts with others.

our motto: Try it. Change it. Share it.

The motto is at the core of the site. Open source materials (units of study, conferring sheets, graphic organizers) are free for you to download, customize and distribute. Consider the materials on this site to be a starting ground. All that we ask is that, if you use a reproducible page, please support the site and its users by…
1) including a link to opensourcereading.com in the footer of any page that you use or customize
2) email a copy of all customized pages to John so that he may put them back on the site to share with others

Happy reading!

A Community of Learners

 

I’ve already signed up and explored the site.  It’s wonderful!  You should definitely check it out!

Summer Literacy Packets and Summer Reading

At the end of the school year I handed out a Summer Literacy Packet to my students.  I told my students it was completely voluntary, and I am very happy to say that a few of my students have been sending me weekly emails detailing their progress.  And come August I expect a few more to pop their notebooks in the mail to me.  It’s been awesome being able to continue our literacy dialogue through the summer months and I am enjoying the deeper conversations we have been having over email.  But today I received a letter essay from one of my students that only further fueled my anger with required summer reading lists.

This particular student is a very strong reader, and an avid one.  She is currently reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  (Three of the six books on our summer reading list are classics).  The email I received from her today broke my heart.  This girl loves to read and shouldn’t be forced to read a book that she is hating.  All year long I preached choice, choice, choice.  I taught my students to choose books on their level, and to be aware when books are not on their level.  Tom Sawyer needs a good deal of scaffolding for 7th graders, and that scaffolding can’t happen over the summer, when students are on their own.

I want to share a few quotes from her letter:

Today, I read chapters 15 and 16 in Tom Sawyer.  So far I rate this book a three out of ten.  this book is really boring and I do not understand it.  Every chapter talks about something different then the last chapter.  It doesn’t flow very well.  It also shocks me that it is considered a classic because I am not enjoying it.  I expect more from a classic than this book has to offer

Is this how we want to introduce the classics, the canon of English literature to our students?  How long will this attitude stay with these student?

Also, they talk in old southern accents and use older words and use old fashioned tools and devices.  Finally, it is boring because the print is small, it is hard to read, the characters are boring, the adventures are boring, and basically the whole book is boring.

Scaffolding, scaffolding, scaffolding!  This should not be happening!  The vocabulary is difficult, the accents are hard to decipher, and a lot of the “adventures” require a good deal of historical background knowledge.  All things students are not being supported with during summer reading.  Ridiculous!

I would recommend this book to no one except older people from the South.  This book is boring and a waste of time.  I can’t wait to finish this book and be done with the required summer reading!

The only thing these required reading lists is doing is making our students despise the classics.  There is nothing wrong with the classics, but forcing students to read them independently, without the background knowledge and support they require is practically cruel.  It really is a shame.

Summer Reading Rant

Over the last few weeks, I have been fielding a lot of questions from friends and family regarding summer reading. Many a parent has placed a list of 5-6 preselected books in front of me saying, “Which of these should my child read? Which one will be the least painful? Which one will help us actually enjoy our summer instead of making it erupt into a mass of screaming and fighting parents and children?!”

Ok, maybe those aren’t their exact words. But the look of fear in their eyes says more than their words ever can. And that’s a lot of pressure!

Yet, inevitably, the list that I am handed is dated, frought with “classics”, and BORING!

I do the best I can, pointing out books that the student can probably enjoy, but it’s usually a difficult task. Most of these summer reading lists look like they have not been updated in over a decade. And while I am all for kids reading the classics, like The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and Gulliver’s Travels , I am not sure summer reading is the place for them.

Most of the classics require a good deal of scaffolding- the vocabulary is difficult, the situations are usually unfamiliar, and the context of the stories has not always been explained. While these novels can certainly be enjoyed by rising 7th and 8th graders (the lists I usually see them on), without that scaffolding they do not enjoy or even necessarily understand the books! All too often I see students reading the “Great Illustrated Classics” edition of the story, slamming the book shut at the end, and calling it a day. That’s it! They consider themselves well-read and some will even make it to college telling those around them that they have “read all the classics”. Yes, the abridged, illustrated versions! Are we really doing them any service at all by requiring these books as summer reading when students will not get the support that need and might even be turned off to these books for the rest of their lives?

And if the lists don’t consist of 5 classics, they are made up of middle grade or YA novels published 10, 20, 30, maybe even 50 years ago. And the choices are few- maybe 4 books of which the students must choose two. And worst of all, they all seem the same to me! There is no diversity, the books are not high-interest, and heaven forbid we include ANY YA or newer middle grade novels. Not to say that the books on these lists are bad- in fact, it is just the opposite. It seems like someone, somewhere along the line, grabbed a list of award-winning books, looked for a few that were age-appropriate, and then put them on the summer reading list. The problem is that that list hasn’t been updated since then! Most of these books have great literary merit but they don’t always “fit” the reader. In fact, when you only offer 5 books, very few of those will fit the majority of your readers! The problem with only allowing students to choose from older award-winners is that they see these awards as old and stale, not at all relevant to their lives. They don’t even realize that books written this year will be up for the 2009 Newbery or Printz award. In fact, I would venture to guess most students don’t realize those awards are still given out today!

Summer is the time for students to expand their reading horizons. They should be reading all those books they didn’t get to read during school because of their homework, sports, and activities schedules. When we force them to read what we deem to be worthy literature, we all to often force them to hate the books, and by association, hate reading.

This is my plea to administrators, teachers, media specialists, and parents- revamp your summer reading lists! The best decision would be to do away with specific required books while letting students choose their own reading material during the summer. But if this is not a reasonable request, then I beg of you-update those stale summer reading lists! Put together a committee of well-read teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Have them come up with the list. And no list should be stagnant. It should be alive, and it should be allowed to change as the years go by.

Even better? Make up a suggested summer reading list and include the reasons why each particular book was placed on the list. Or just have each teacher from the next grade choose a book and write a quick paragraph explaining why they are recommending that book. This allows rising students to become familiar with each teacher’s personality through their choice of book(s). This will also ensure a varied list. I would be willing to bet you would see classics right alongside newer books, award winners next to beach reads. And the students would see that each teacher values reading in a different way, just like them! Some teachers would recommend fiction, others non-fiction. You would see a variety of genres. And a list like this could easily be updated each year!

Summer reading should not be a time of torture, arguing, and cheating (I’m talking to you, movie-watchers and Sparknotes-readers!). Summer reading should be fun and enjoyable. It should allow students to try new books, read the latest in their favorite series, or try out those great classics. Without any pressure. It shouldn’t be miserable. I firmly believe that miserable summer reading experiences are just one of the reasons we are raising a generation of bookhaters instead of booklovers.

For some of my favorites (and some that I recommended to my classes at the end of the year), check out my Amazon store here.

Summer Adventure Packets

Tonight, I finally finished the summer adventure packets for my kids! It was definitely a labor of love, but I feel like they are finally perfect. Jen Barney shared the packet she uses in her class, and I used Stacey‘s as a mentor/template and then added in my own activities. I can’t wait to see if any of my students take advantage of this….

You see, my students move on to the middle school next year, so they will be responsible for emailing or snail mailing their completed packets to me. That’s a hefty amount of responsibility in the summer! But I have some truly awesome 7th grade survival packs planned, so hopefully someone completes it!

I will also be handing out my list of amazing books, places to get books, and blogs to check out. This is the first year I will be doing this, too. This way,my kids will have a list of books I love and think they will love, even if I can’t booktalk them!

Summer Literacy Packet (6th grade)

Must-reads 2008

Eco-art

Today, after a morning of standardized testing, I took my students outside to create eco-art.  In the tradition of Andy Goldsworthy we created art from the natural materials readily available around our schoolyard.  My kids were so amazing in this project!

After spending a good amount of time wandering the schoolyard, the students broke into small groups.  For the first time all year, there was no whining or fighting over working together.  Students seemed to naturally gravitate towards working alone or with a small group of friends.  They gathered materials together, brainstormed ideas, and even claimed their area without an ounce of anger or annoyance.  They quickly got to work and produced some amazing art.

Tomorrow, I will print out their artwork and we will use the pieces to inspire poetry and prose.  The words they write will then be combined with the photos before becoming a book on Shutterfly.  Through the Voices…From the Land project, we will share our book with another school and will receive one from another school.  We are very excited!

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