Looking back, I did accomplish much of what I wanted in 2015. I shared ideas with my colleagues, including presenting to student teachers at the local university and becoming team leader for my grade at school. I read over 100 books, including participating in the #bookaday challenge over the summer. I used my instagram and twitter accounts to promote ideas and literacy, as well as connect with students. The only goal I didn’t complete was to write more posts. Therefore, in 2016 I plan to share more of my thoughts on this website, including book reviews and lesson plans. Based on this past year, it will be a challenge, but I feel it will be worth it for my own professional development.
I promised myself that in 2015 I would write more posts about reading, books, literacy, and education. Now, with the New Year approaching and my resolution needing to be fulfilled, all I want to do is go and read Masterminds & Wingmen by Rosalind Wiseman. I think that’s telling about how I’m going to approach the New Year. I will try to make 2015 a year of learning and sharing. I will continue to read books that engage and inform myself and my students. I will use social media as a tool to realize my own potential and connect with other educators, while still remembering that the printed word will be my primary focus. Finally, I will continue to foster the love of reading at home, as my son practices his letter sounds and announces that it’s time to “go to bed and read books”. So many New Year’s quotations compare the coming year to a new chapter or a fresh page that must be written upon. Here’s hoping my next chapter will be informative, enlightening, and satisfying.
For the past five months, my students and I have been working on a new reading program that encourages the joy and celebration of reading. I can now give some of the results from my reading endeavour. I am proud of my students, and feel overall that my plans have been successful in that I have created a reading culture in the classroom. Students talk about their books with me, and we have been loaning books to each other and sharing recommendations. I have more reluctant readers choosing to read in class, and choosing books that are outside the genre they are usually attracted to or are at a higher reading level. My two classes met their reading goal of 200 books in January, and are currently at 729 books at last count. Next year I will be sure to continue the strategies that have worked, including:
- Allow kids to read what they are interested in. Don’t limit a book or story simply because it is a graphic novel, or you feel the book has no solid reading value. I had a student who started the year reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid and I, Funny, and is now working his way through the Newbery Honor book Al Capone Does My Shirts. Start at their level, and then continue to introduce books that will pique their interest.
- Don’t get discouraged by students who do not read anything, and who fight you on reading in the classroom. Continue to provide book recommendations without forcing them to make a choice. Often they will make a decision on their own once they see that you want them to simply read, and are giving them the autonomy of choosing what they can read.
- Provide a visual of the students’ progress. We put a paper chain around each classroom, with one link in the chain being one book read. Students can then see the entire classes’ progress. We also created a friendly competition between the classes, where each month the class who read the most books keeps the reading trophy that a student made in woodshop in their classroom. It helps the students to own their reading success.
- Be a fangirl (or fanboy) about the books you are reading. Model reading in the classroom. Write the books that you are currently reading on the board. Get excited about the YA books that you enjoyed and share them to the class. Be honest and let the students know if you are struggling with getting through a book that doesn’t interest you. Treat your informal class book discussions as a book club discussion. Students will hopefully see reading as a hobby that deserves time outside of school if you treat it as an enjoyable pastime.
There are still some improvements that I need to work on for this project next year. For example, we have largely stopped writing in our reading notebooks because of time constraints, and are instead sharing our books verbally during the assigned reading block. Next year I would like to more closely link independent reading to my curriculum by creating time for reading workshops that match our Intended Learning Outcomes. I would also like to have time to place all of the student names into my classroom library organizer, and use an ipad to have students scan and check books out of our classroom library. Finally, as always, I need to keep reading more books to give more reading recommendations, so any suggestions are always helpful.
When I first started teaching Language Arts I planned my units the way I saw other teachers do. I used the whole class novel sets, I planned my own assignments and activities around the novel we would read, and I set up all the criterion-referenced assessment and rubrics in advance so the students would know how they would be graded. Yet, as I taught these units, something usually didn’t feel quite right. I could never get the entire class to engage and participate in the novel. I never liked the fact that my two, sometimes three, middle school classes had to share a 30 novel set, meaning that the books had to be signed out by request if the students wanted to read at home. I struggled with not allowing the students to read ahead, because although I was told it would help to teach prediction strategies, I was never comfortable with asking the students to do something that annoyed me as a student.
Over the years, I kept trying to think of new ways, sometimes small ways, of getting the students to enjoy reading. I found that literature circles were better than whole class novels, but only if I provided a lot of background knowledge before we began, and even then I would have students who did not enjoy any of the novels that were available for me to use. With the help of some great teaching partners, we tried gender based novel studies, which were fun but also left me with students who did not like the books the teachers had chosen. I noticed that I would get some of the reading passion I wanted if I talked to students about the books they had chosen to read recently. I remember the first time I told a student that I had read a book that she had recommended. I had meant it as just a casual conversation, but the look in her eyes as her teacher told her she had listened to her recommendation told me that this is something I should do more often. I wanted to change something in how I structured reading time in the classroom, but I was not entirely sure where to start.
But then, over my Maternity Leave, I was able to read The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller. For me, this was the plan that I needed. Miller outlines how to reorganize your teaching and your classroom to meet the needs of readers. Her advice ranges from simple ways of encouraging independent reading in the classroom to a plan for a year-long reading workshop. She gave me concrete strategies that I could use to give my students reading choice while still adhering to the learning outcomes that have to be part of my Language Arts curriculum. It was one of those teaching resource books that had me continually thinking, “Yes, this is what my classroom needs to be like”.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t set everything up for September, so I’m not sure I can give Miller’s comprehensive reading workshop justice. Therefore, my New Year’s resolution is to test out many of her strategies in the classroom and make them happen. My classroom library is all pulled out and completely organized by genre. The reading notebooks are created and ready to be handed out. The students will be getting more independent reading time in the classroom, more conferences with me about the books they are reading, and more time in the library. They will be given reading goals, with our two classes having the goal of reading 200 books in January. I had already planned to teach a new literature genre each month, so students will be given more choice within that genre when it comes time to choose their reading. The staff will be warned that students will be encouraged to ask them about their favourite books, and I will encourage staff to stop by the class and talk about their reading. I am sure there will be “developing readers”, “dormant readers”, and struggles matching books to student interests. However, if I can be inspired by a book, perhaps I can help my students to uncover their own inspiration by finding a book that speaks to them.
After catching a great interview last week with Young Adult writer Rainbow Rowell on the Canadian TV talk show The Social, I went to the show’s website to see if I could learn more. There I found an opinion editorial written by their digital correspondent, Jessica Allen, on why she is not a fan of YA novels. Of course she is entitled to her opinion, but as I read through and then thought about her reasons why, I feel that as a fan of Young Adult writing I need to comment on a few of her thoughts.
First, Allen is totally within her right to not read this particular genre. She is very lucky in that she has found her reading voice. She has experience reading, has explored different genres, and has discovered what she is looking for in her literature and what she does not appreciate. However, others are not so lucky. At least a third of adults today have not read a book since they left high school, and some hold it up as a badge of honour. These people have not yet found their reading voice, and the way to solve that is to expose them to a variety of different genres so they can develop discriminating tastes and learn what they appreciate and do not appreciate in a work of literature. If that means they enjoy reading Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, or Rumiko Takahashi’s graphic novel series Mermaid Saga, let them experience it to discover their reading voice.
Allen seems to divide her reasoning behind why she will not read Young Adult literature into two sections. The first is that she dislikes the vast merchandising and commercialism that these novels generate. I don’t think this is a very strong argument, as the evils of marketing seem to be a catch-all argument in our society for those who want more purity in their pop culture. Teenagers and young adults have lots of disposable income, and people try to market towards that. But this does not mean that the merchandising will be successful. The failure of Percy Jackson and The Mortal Instruments movies at the box office demonstrates that the books are loved on their own, and that flocks of young people won’t simply make a book a success because an ad tells them to. You cannot take Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games as the “big three” of the young adult marketing scheme and think that it will apply to any YA book.
The second reason Allen gives is that she no longer feels the need to read novels where the adults are the problem, the kids are the heroes, and that life has the possibility of becoming better. She has many more adult novels that take priority on her to-read list before she would consider picking up a young adult work. That’s fine, but it seems to me that in this case she is criticizing the genre for being the genre. While it is true that young adult books often have the characteristic of young people saving the world or being the voice of reason, I find that having these main characters gives a sense of raw emotion that is just not present in much adult fiction. Too often in those books the theme or meaning is hidden behind complicated words, complex metaphors, or detailed illusions that show how “deep” the author is. But when I chuckle as I read about the surfer mumbling “bad ‘shrooms” as he paddles away from Percy Jackson emerging from the ocean in a translucent pearl, or cry out as I try to fathom infant euthanasia in Lois Lowry’s The Giver, I am experiencing uncomplicated, raw emotion. I would argue that this makes Young Adult books relatable to a wider audience, as we can have frank discussions about the obvious themes and conflicts in the books. As for Allen’s comment that Young Adult books usually have the theme of hope, and that life can get better, can someone please explain to me how one can outgrow a longing for that kind of warmth and security?
I am unique in that reading Young Adult fiction is part of my job. If I want to encourage reading, I have to read YA books so I can recommend them to students and help them find their reading voice. It can also get a little embarrassing in social situations where books are being discussed. One person has read Guns, Germs, and Steel, another has finished The Girl Who Played With Fire, and you have to confess that the best book you have read over the past couple of weeks has been Jennifer Holm’s Penny From Heaven. However, I like the YA genre. It gives me the opportunity to explore themes and emotions within a well-written setting and with likeable or interesting characters. And really, at their heart, I think that’s what most genuine readers are looking for.
This week was Banned Books week. This event was created in 1982 in response to an unusually high number of challenges to books in libraries, schools, and bookstores across the United States. Those supporting Banned Books week are encouraged to advocate for freedom of book choice for children, as well as speak out against censorship. The American Library Association records times when books were challenged (a request by an adult that the book be removed from the shelves) or outright banned (when a request was actually approved and the book was removed). Most of the requests seem to be regarding vulgar language, explicit content, a threat to family values, or that the content is simply unsuited for the age group that may want to read the offending book.
Lois Lowry’s book The Giver has regularly appeared on the American Library Association’s lists of challenged and banned books, and on her website Lowry has written a response to those who ask her what she thinks about people who try to ban her books:
“I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It’s okay for a parent to say, “I don’t want my child to read this book.” But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let’s work hard to keep it from truly happening.”
The idea that strangers can have a say in what you can and cannot read is unsettling. While they feel they are trying to protect your sensibilities, they are really preventing you from using books to explore worlds that are beyond what your current reality might be. Eventually every reader must leave behind a sanitized and concrete perception of life, and explore new and abstract themes and ethical questions. It is really a part of growing up to take a new and unusual concept, practice critical thinking by forming an opinion about the idea, and be able to debate points with others while still granting them respect. If a few take the liberty of continually speaking for the majority, it feels like a slippery slope where children will have less practice independently deciding what is the best choice for themselves. It is therefore up to a child and his parents to decide if a book is worth reading. Parents have that essential connection with their child, and obviously have the knowledge of whether their child is developmentally or emotionally ready to tackle a book with controversial content. A teacher’s role is to be transparent about what books will be read in the classroom, offer alternatives if necessary, and make sure that a wide selection of books are available for students’ varied interests. Much has been made about teaching today’s children to be empathetic and responsible citizens. In order to do this, we must allow children to freely make their own literary choices, and to explore the world of books with the adults in their lives being guides rather than authoritarians.
Today is International Dot Day. It is based on the story The Dot, by Peter H. Reynolds. In this book, an art teacher inspires a reluctant art student by telling her to just place a dot on her blank piece of paper. The student then creates complex and wonderful dots on many different papers, and shares her confidence in “making her mark” with another reluctant artist. The theme running through the story is to allow people to express their creativity in order to gain assurance and confidence. Just as the student, Vashti, made her mark, so must we have the self-esteem and courage to make our mark on the world and express ourselves. In thinking about it, I am pretty lucky. Just by teaching, I am leaving my mark. Through creativity and collaboration with others I am attempting to help students become the best people they can be. If I was in the classroom this September, I would be trying to tie International Dot Day into a lesson on self-esteem and creative expression. However, I’m not back at school just yet, so I thought I would complete a little art project with my son. After all, I want him to have confidence in his abilities as he learns and grows.
The red dots are his fingerprints, and the green and blue dots are mine and my husband’s. It’s kind of my way of saying that we’re all in this together, and as a family we can all help each other gain what we need to “leave our mark” however we choose.
This summer I tried the reading one book a day challenge, just to see if I could, and it turns out I can. Sixty-two books were read over July and August. The best part was that some of this number were children’s books that I read with my son. He’s obviously too young to understand what I was reading, but the cuddling as we flipped through the pages together provided some great memories. Here are a few of my summer favourites:
The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate
Can Ivan, a gorilla who since childhood has been in a small zoo at an arcade, honour his friend’s last wish and help a baby elephant named Ruby to freedom? The 2013 Newbery Honor Award winning book is easy to read, poignant, and memorable.
Hold Fast, by Blue Balliett
Early’s father has disappeared, and now Early, her mother, and younger brother are forced to leave their home and live in a shelter. The problem of how to save Early’s father will keep you reading, but I particularly liked this book because of the honest and sometimes heartbreaking portrayal of shelter families.
The Franny K. Stein series, by Jim Benton
The Stein family home is quite normal, except for a small room in the attic. It is here where Franny K. Stein, genius mad scientist, conducts her brilliant experiments. I have read five books in this series so far, and have been greatly amused by Franny’s thinking as she attempts to solve typical friend and school problems with her ingenious devices. This series would be great for Grades 2 – 4.
Tsunami!, by Kimiko Kajikawa
The story is simple enough, as an old, respected farmer living high on a hill attempts to warn his small village about an impending tsunami. But what really made this book for me are the illustrations. Ripped paper in a variety of textures creates gorgeous and dynamic pictures, plus a brainstorm for me about creating art for the classroom.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
I had somehow missed reading this book during school, and I am so glad I gave myself a chance now. This novel is so brilliantly written that I went from thinking “Oh, maybe Jonas’ society isn’t so bad” to “OK, that doesn’t seem right” to “Oh no! Oh God, No! What are you doing?” in the time it takes to read approximately 150 pages. The only downside is I’ll now have to find time to read the rest of the books in the series.
Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, by Laura Amy Schlitz
If you teach the Middle Ages, just make this book part of your library. As a history major and a general history buff, I loved how Schlitz made the characters in her short plays relatable and endearing while still providing so much information about the time period.
I have now given myself a new reading goal, with no deadline. I am attempting to read all of the Newbery Award and Honor books. I have procured a list, and have scanned it to cross off any of the novels that I have already read. Some of the novels, like Ramona Quimby, Age 8, I think I will have to read again because I cannot remember the plot. Others, like A Wrinkle in Time, I may have to re-read to see if I like it any better the second time around. I’ll also have to overcome the challenge of finding all these books, in particular the novels from the 1920‘s. However, so far this challenge has been rather enlightening. By choosing to read books based on this one criteria, I have been exposed to a variety of plots, characters, and experiences. I have also noticed that many of the award winners are realistic fiction, which is a genre that I don’t naturally pick up, so I feel rewarded in that I have more books to recommend when asked what students should be reading. I am hoping to post updates about my progress, or, if you wish, simply go to my goodreads account to see my recent reading accomplishments. Also, if you like charts, learn more about the Newbery Award.
Have you ever been reading a book about helping children, and as you go along you start to have the sinking feeling that the book’s advice is something you should already be doing in the classroom? I had that feeling recently as I was reading It’s So Much Work to be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success, by Richard Lavoie. In his book, Lavoie examines a variety of learning disabilities that students experience, and how these difficulties can negatively impact students’ lives outside the classroom. He states that while many schools and teachers focus on academic assistance for these kids, most children are far more concerned with their social status and how their learning issues can isolate them from their peers. I admit that I have been one of those educators who was primarily concerned with helping students with learning disabilities reach their academic potential. I think I assumed that if these students felt more confident in the classroom, their self-esteem would enable them to be more capable in social situations. If they did need assistance finding friends or navigating the rough waters of middle school, I would help them in the same way I would help any other student in my classroom. However, Lavoie has helped me to see that students with learning disabilities have unique needs, and that my assistance for their social difficulties needs to be specific. For example, if a student has trouble picking up on social cues, tone of voice, or body language, he can have great difficulty understanding why his peers might be frustrated with him. I can help by spending one-on-one time reviewing a particular situation and leading him towards insight as to why the friend is irritated. I can then give him a similar hypothetical situation to see if his gets the point, and ask him to behave differently if a similar issue arises throughout the week, as well as schedule a follow-up meeting to see if he followed through on our conversation. I can also help him to discover the “hidden curriculum” in school, where he will learn the rules of the school that the students create, such as which doors he needs to enter after lunch and how students typically wait at the canteen. Lavoie offers practical advice to both parents and teachers who see a child suffering through social issues but are unsure of how to help. I know that when I go back to school I will try to implement some of these ideas. It is important to make all students feel comfortable in the classroom, and in middle school that means teaching them the social skills that they will need to feel comfortable and confident in the eyes of their peers.
Now, don’t misunderstand me: Bullying is a real issue that needs to be addressed by parents, teachers, and students alike. However, sometimes I get the feeling that the word “bullying” is being used as an umbrella word to describe any kind of hurt that one kid experiences from another kid. Allow me to provide an example:
Student (emerging from gym changeroom): Ms. A., Johnny is bullying me!
Me: What happened?
Student: He was throwing his deodorant and it hit me!
Me: Did he mean to hit you?
Student: No, he was playing catch with someone else.
Me: So how exactly were you being bullied?
Students: It hit me and I hurt!
Now, obviously the deodorant thrower would be spoken to about careless play in the changeroom, and would be asked to apologize to the person he accidentally hit. But this isn’t bullying. I find that children in middle school develop a very clear sense of justice, in that if they feel they are wronged consequences must be taken, either by an authority figure or by themselves. In the above example, the student felt that being hurt equalled bullying, and the teacher needed to met out some justice to make him feel better and to make things fair.
I also find this sense of justice quite relevant when I have dealt with or witnessed in person or online disputes. Student A does something that hurt Student B, either emotionally or physically. Student B feels retaliation is necessary to make things fair. The retaliation goes back and forth between the students (and often their friends) until Student A feels that she is sufficiently hurt enough to tell a teacher. She calls it bullying, but if teachers begin to research the incident, they find that Student A and Student B are both the bullies and the victims in this little scenario. Therefore, while a student should never be ignored if they say they are being bullied, there are some questions to be asked and ideas to try before everyone panics:
1. Thoroughly talk to the student who says they are being bullied. Get the entire story. A question that I have often found useful when trying to determine what actually happened is: “If Student B was standing here right now, what would she say about the facts you are giving me?”
2. Improve the students’ vocabulary. Give the proper definition of bullying. Teach them to be able to explain their frustrations and be able to describe exactly why they are hurting or feeling bad.
3. Remind the students that their actions have consequences. If they are engaging in an online argument where both sides are being nasty, they are not going to come out of the battle completely innocent. Give real words for the types of hurtful actions they might be engaged in. For example, if they are writing rude, untrue facts about a person online and making it public, call it libel and state what would happen if they were accused of this as an adult in the community, instead of a student within the protective barriers of school.
4. Try to teach social skills to the students who need it. Admittedly, this can be very hard. I have found that students will give every child a chance to talk and be friendly to them. But notice I said chance, not chances. If a student with poor social skills is rude to them once, they will usually not try again. If the child who usually gets bullied improves their social skills, they can often find others who will hang out with them and make them feel part of a social group and less prone to bullying.
5. A wiser teacher than myself once told me to say this to parents: “Let’s make a deal. If you believe half of everything your child tells you about school, I will believe half of everything your child tells me about home.” With all of the bullying stories in the media, it is very easy to want to protect your child from the harm that you have seen others experience. However, if you try to get the entire story from your child and discuss how the problem could be solved, you may not have to rush to the school for a meeting. If your brainstorming sessions with your child have not yielded a solution, then by all means meet with the teacher or principal to try and solve the problem.
We all want to protect kids from the hurtful bullying that we have witnessed, and may have even experienced ourselves. However, if we take a step back, meet the students where their current mindset is, and talk through the situation and the solutions, we may be able to offer long-term help that will benefit kids into adulthood.