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8th Grade Cast Members of Our Town by Thornton Wilder

Recently, I reread Amy Rasmussen’s post about defining what we mean by readers’ and writers’ workshop. I loved that Amy described workshop as  students doing the work of readers and writers, “engaged in intensive discussion and activity on a particular subject” — specifically related to growing as readers and writers. This work happens because teachers open spaces in their classrooms which allow for it.”

I confess. Our Town, Thornton Wilder’s 1938 Pulitzer Prize winner, is my favorite play. I read it obsessively. I find relevance in its pages time and again. Wilder said that he wrote the play to illustrate the value beyond price in every moment of our daily lives.

After spending more than twenty years with middle school students, and experiencing moments of deep joy and sadness, as well as tasting  my own mortality, the play resonates with me more now than it ever has…BUT, how do I workshop a canonical piece like Our Town? How do I make the pages sing for my students as they do for me?

Here are four ways that I changed my approach to the play this year to leave more space for student voice and choice.

Less is More: In Our Town, this meant placing students in small groups to reflect on specific scenes from the play. Rather than slogging through an entire act, and then replying to teacher generated questions, I asked students to journal with their groups and express their own thoughts, questions, and epiphanies after reading a few pages aloud and then viewing that scene. Thanks to @MarisaEThompson and @cultofpedagogy for encouraging me to try the TQE method.

Podcasts Rock!  is the most performed play in the United States, and that distinction means– a lot has been said about it! Students were invited to choose a podcast featuring an interview with a respected director, and then discuss observations from the podcast with their small group and share how those podcasts changed or enhanced their understanding of the text.

Music Matters: One of the fascinating things about Our Town is that Wilder designated a hymn, “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” to be played in each of the three acts. He was also very specific about the music that should be sung during the choir practice in Act I, and played for the wedding scene in Act II.  Music is a bridge from life to death, and beyond. Working with their small groups, students composed soundtracks for the play incorporating music from many different genres. They could also choose to write about Wilder’s musical selections and what difference his choices made.

Performance Deepens Understanding:  By the end of our study, my students recognized that George & Emily, the two main characters in the play, were allegorical. They could have been anyone, at any time, in any small town. We all grow up, most of us know what it is to love truly, and we all die. That is our story, and Our Town shows and tells it. My students did as well, performing some of their favorite scenes and exploring character motivations and emotions more deeply even than we did during our small group study times. Performing the scenes gave them a new appreciation for the nuances and poetry on page after page.

Our Town. Glorious in its simplicity, and relatable after more than eighty years, if students have the space to think and explore as readers, writers and speakers.

 

Elizabeth Oosterheert is a middle school language arts teacher and theatre troupe director at Pella Christian Grade School in Pella, Iowa. She loves writing, and sharing the stage with seventh and eighth graders. Her favorite stories are Peter Pan, The Outsiders, & Our Town. You can find her on Twitter @oosterheerte.

 

 

 

 

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Join us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

Shana’s post from 2017 sources readers’ ideas for alternatives to reading logs. The ideas are here, and the document is still open for your additions.

Ahhh, Labor Day weekend–that first glorious three-day respite from back to school, or the last vestiges of freedom before it begins.  Whatever this weekend is for you, I hope you’re using it to relax and recharge before we see bright, smiling faces (or sleepy ones) tomorrow.

I bet you’re using a book or two to help you enjoy this weekend–what are you reading?  I’m reading little bits of Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue whenever I can squeeze it in (usually as I fall asleep).  In longer chunks, I’m reading Scaachi Koul’s memoir, One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, which is a perfectly-sized series of essays for my busy days.

In quiet moments on long weekends like these, I wonder what our students are doing.  Do their reading lives mirror mine?  If the answer is no…what can I do to help them become readers?

And, more pressingly–is there something I’m doing that’s preventing them from becoming readers?

Reading homework, requirements, levels; book reports, assignments, due dates.  None of these are what I’m tying to the books I’m reading this weekend.

But is that true for our students?

This article from School Library Journal talks about the work done by librarians to match a person to a book.  They call it readers’ advisory.  Then, they lament that so many classrooms discourage the important work of “talking with a child, observing body language for clues, and walking together through the stacks while offering suggestions” and rely on leveled bins, assigned texts, or assessment-bound reading units to get kids to read.

How much of what goes on in my classroom is readers’ advisory–and how much damages that work?

I’ve been thinking since last May about how we should stop grading independent reading.  The best and brightest in our teacher hive give us their advice and wisdom in books, blogs, and articles, with quotes like this one from Donalyn Miller.  Books, time, encouragement–these are themes we see repeated in what students need to blossom as independent readers.  Nowhere do we see that we need to measure, assess, or grade them.

To be sure, our kids need our instruction and guidance to grow as real readers.  Conferences, follow-up activities, book clubs, goal-setting, talk, and self-assessment are powerful tools to help move students forward.  How can we prioritize those things instead of more measurable (and infinitely less revealing, rewarding, or authentic) methods like reading logs, records, and quizzes?

Well, we really want to know.

Please share with us:  what are your alternatives to reading logs?  How do you approach a gradebook that must be filled, and fill it with meaningful activities tied to reading?

In that Google Doc, we’ll work to compile a series of alternatives to reading logs, and share them here for everyone to benefit from.  You can also leave a comment on this post, write on our Facebook page, or tweet to us.  Together, we can create a repository of ideas and strategies for approaching independent reading in a way that’s authentic and helpful this school year.

Shana Karnes is mom to 1.5 spunky little girls and wife to a sleepy surgical resident.  She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, chocolate (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing.  Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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Book clubs, or literature circles as some like to call them, can be a real bonus when it comes to not only getting some students to read, but in helping students talk about books in meaningful ways and learn about literature through discussion.

I like to think of Book Clubs as discovery:  Students lead the learning. They choose the books they’ll read (often within parameters I give them) set their reading schedules, generate questions about their books, and engage in small group discussions. Each group discovers something, or a series of somethings, that strikes them as readers. Book Clubs by nature are collaborative, yet they can be powerfully personal.

“I really liked being able to just read the book and discuss it like a real book club would, not with any assignment. It gave me the freedom to enjoy the book and not have to focus on finding anything specific.”  Emily, 11 grade

When I first started doing Book Clubs with my students many years ago, I didn’t have a clear purpose or direction, and that often created a bit of chaos for me and my students. Although most students did the reading, I didn’t have a plan on how to teach into the reading or any notion of how to authentically assess learning.  I knew I didn’t want to teach books but to teach readers, and I knew what that meant when it came to self-selected independent reading — but not for book clubs.

I’ve learned that to have success with the negotiated choice of book clubs, I must do some heavy thinking before I ever choose the book titles. (My hope this coming year is that my students will choose the titles. I’ve never trusted myself enough to try trusting them to choose. I’m learning.)

Here’s a little list of questions I try to answer in order to clarify my purpose and to make a plan for accelerating learning within student book clubs:

  • What are my goals for my readers? What are my goals for my writers?
  • How can I help my readers and writers set their own goals?
  • What books can I offer as choices that will help students meet these goals? Do I include a variety of books that will meet the various reading levels of my students?
  • How will I help students set expectations for their reading and discussions?
  • How will I know if students are really reading? How can I help my students hold one another accountable?
  • What whole-class, skills-based mini-lessons might I teach when students are engaged in book clubs?
  • How might my students collaborate with other students who may be reading different books?
  • How might my students collaborate with other students, perhaps on a different campus, who may be reading the same books?
  • How will I assess student learning, based on the instructional goals I set for book clubs?

The answers to these questions guide my planning. Many of the answers look the same when applied to self-selected independent reading and student choice in writing. The routines of workshop remain the same:  We read, talk, write, and talk — every day. And I do a whole lot of listening.

There’s so much to say about book clubs, and I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all way to make them work. We have to know our students. We have know their needs and align those needs with instructional goals and practices that best meet them. I think book clubs are one good option for doing so, and I can’t wait to get them started in the fall with my seniors. I’m thinking we’ll do at least two rounds: memoirs and something social sciences, but fiction with multiple or unique perspectives could be interesting.

I’m still thinking.

Amy Rasmussen just spent a week in Chicago at a conference on poetry, hosted by The Poetry Foundation. Her notebook now sings with melodic musings and personal poems. In a few weeks, Amy will start a new position, teaching senior English at Hebron High School in Lewisville, TX. She’s excited about learning with young people again everyday. Follow her @amyrass

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I’ve been thinking about culturally relevant texts and how they encourage striving readers to reach for increasingly complex texts. 

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pioneer in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy, believes that students need opportunities to find themselves in the books they read and be held to “high expectations.” To build strong readers, we need to expose all students to complexity and nuance, not just those who we consider advanced. 

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

I work as a literacy interventionist in my district with teachers and students to close literacy gaps. This year, I had an eye-opening experience with a freshman who reads at an intermediate level and selected Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, as his lit circle book. 

If you aren’t familiar with this book, it is often a summer read for some of our juniors going into AP Language. Noah, comedian and anchor of The Daily Show, masterfully recalls his childhood in apartheid South Africa, all while interspersing his trademark humor and rich historical details. Despite its levity, it’s a hard book, dense with context that even strong readers may find challenging in places. 

And yet, this freshman thrived with this book. Even though he didn’t grow up in South Africa, he grew up in an area that he describes as “the projects”.

After working with me one day to develop a text-response strategy, this young man excitedly ran back to his teacher and told her about “this sticky note annotation strategy” that both his teacher and I had been modeling all year for him. He had a great sense of pride and engagement in his reading that we had never seen before. And when the time came for discussion, he had a great deal to contribute to his group.

This book transformed him as a reader. 

This had me thinking… what if instead of assigning the “appropriate” leveled text to striving readers, we focus more on finding a text relevant to them?

Often reading intervention programs focus on simplistic texts. Overtime, students who read at a lower than grade levels may miss out on context-rich literacy experiences. 

Literacy is about building equity, and if we aren’t giving striving readers the same opportunities as thriving readers, then we are limiting their access to diverse and timely ideas. 

All readers, but especially those who are striving, need books that mirror their reality.

At the heart of a strong reading intervention lies a teacher’s ability to connect readers to texts that engage, excite, and encourage them as readers. It’s about the just-right-text, not the just-right-level. 

Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is a literacy interventionist, ELA 9 teacher and co-director of the Wildcat Writing Den, a campus writing center in metro-Detroit. You can find her laughing easily with her husband and three sons while spending time in the great outdoors this summer. Visit her blog at www.learningonramps.org

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Yesterday, my amazing English department met to discuss Why They Can’t Write. (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.) We spent the morning discussing and questioning the text, our practices and ourselves as teachers before breaking up to think about how the ideas from our morning conversations could be applied in our classrooms. It. Was. Amazing. PD.

See, I crave these conversations in my professional life; I’m constantly having them with myself in my head – especially when I’m driving by myself – and I’m lucky enough to have a fabulous PLC who are willing to indulge in these wide-ranging deep dives into our practices almost at the drop of a hat. However, the more I have, the more I want. So to be able to have such a thoughtful conversation with such intentional educators was so inspiring. I left with so much to think about, so much to question; in fact, one of our final takeaways inspired me to change the content of this blog post. I was planning on writing about using station rotations in large classrooms. However, after we asked ourselves to use the last few weeks of summer to think about our non-negotiables when it came to the instruction we offer and the relationship-building we crave, I wanted to reexamine my non-negotiables.

After some reflection, I realized the biggest sacrosanct practice is conferencing with students. A few weeks ago, we reposted an excellent piece by Angela Faulhaber; she included an image that quoted Carl Anderson: Conferring is not the icing on the cake; it IS the cake. And, man, does that hit the nail on the head.

Regular conferencing improves student performances and my relationships with my students and, honestly, their relationships with each other unlike any other practice I’ve ever tried. After trying conferencing for a year, I can’t see myself ever teaching without it. It’s a staple of the 3TT world as well: we’ve written about it here and here and here.

Even with all of the value that I find in conferencing, I have to admit that the first conferences last year went… well… poorly. They were super awkward and sometimes stilted. The kids hadn’t bought in yet, and, really, I probably just seemed like a weird lady who wanted to know about their reading habits a little too intensely. I’m also an extreme introvert, so I’m always worried that the conferencing – which doesn’t come naturally to me – is made more uncomfortable for everyone because those early one on one conversations are so out of my wheelhouse. It takes a while to draw reluctant students out of their shells and for both of us to become more comfortable with each other, but the end results are so worth any early awkwardness.

Here’s how this first conference runs: 

  • I created a Signup Genius form, and students chose a time that works for them. I scheduled ten minutes per conference. I set a timer and tried really hard to stay within the ten minute time frame; I wanted to be respectful of their time. 
    • This year, I think I might extend the sessions to 12 minutes. 
  • Students prepared answers to a series of questions before they came to the conference, so no one was put on the spot. I wrote about those questions and their results last year
  • This year, I’m revamping those questions just a little. Last year, students responded to each question. I think this year, I might allow them to choose two or three questions to respond to, hopefully allowing us to get to the ‘meat’ of the conversation a little faster.
    • Instead of asking what students have read lately, I want to draw a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for class. So I am asking students to discuss one on one with me their aha/agree/disagree moments from their summer reading selections, and then I’ll follow up with a question about how they see themselves as a reader/what they read for pleasure. I thought some of them seemed guilty or ashamed when they said they didn’t read for pleasure last year. I want to try to avoid that feeling for them. 
    • Instead of just asking them to talk about themselves as writers, I’m toying with the idea of asking them to bring a piece of writing that showcases how they feel about themselves as a writer. Last year, I realized that students didn’t really view themselves as writers really – but they had very firm impressions of themselves as a ‘good’ writer or a ‘weak’ writer, but they couldn’t really articulate WHY they felt that way. Hopefully, changing this question will lead to more celebrations of what they already are or have accomplished.
      • I do think it will be interesting to see who goes the reader route and who goes the writer route and try to tease out why they chose that particular question in the conference. 
    • I’m getting rid of the how do you learn best question entirely; that’s right out. We ended up spending a lot of time on this question, but I didn’t use it to change my instruction that dramatically. I just need to remember to vary my instruction for different learner types throughout the year.
    • I’m also getting rid of the homework question from last year. It’s ok if I don’t know that they turned in homework on time or turned in homework late when they were sophomores. In reality, I actually ended up using this question to discuss their current schedule, trying to suss out how much they had on their plates. I can just run a report in our grade book to figure this out.
    • I’m keeping the last question, which is designed for students to ask questions or bring up concerns, unchanged. This one led to some very rich, necessary conversations and allowed me to calm nerves, change seating charts, and offer strategies BEFORE they were needed. I’m hoping that I’ll have more time for this question after revising the other questions.

I’m excited to see what these changes will bring to my new set of students. Last year, I noticed an immediate uptick in class participation, discussion and a willingness to ask questions and seek out help and understanding after students had their conference. I’m hoping for more of the same this year as well. 

If you offer introduction conferences, what do you do that works for you?

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar,  and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently wondering if Steve Harrington’s name was chosen before or after the casting team saw Joe Keery’s impressive head of hair. (It’s summer, and these are summer thoughts!) She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

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Join us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

This 2017 post by Amy Estersohn details one answer to the age-old workshop question: how to balance choice and whole-class novels.

I spent my President’s Day-Week vacation (the one that New York teachers and students get- yes, a whole week off for President’s Day!) scrapping my whole-class unit on The Outsiders and rebuilding it to reflect the values of a reader’s workshop.  First, I had to define my values:

  • Choice in what we read and what we read “for” (information, entertainment, character chemistry, therapy, etc.)
  • Diversity in opinions, experiences, and interpretations
  • Engagement in ideas.  I always like to tell students that you don’t need to read to think, but a book can make you think something you haven’t thought about yet

I also had to define my teacher non-negotiables:

  • Reading for ideas. Students will be able to read a scene from a book and connect it to an idea
  • Tracking how that idea changes over time.  Students will be able to see how ideas unfold and develop over the course of a story, either by using a chronological progression to explain how an idea unfolds (At the beginning of the story… in the middle….at the end) or a more conceptual approach (At first I thought…. Then I realized….)

Here’s how a typical lesson on a typical day looks like in this unit:

  1. A visual reminder of what we’re reading for when we’re reading The Outsiders
  2. A mini-lecture on the chapter.  After I summarize the chapter, I choose a passage and my readers help me write an entry.  I make sure my passages reflect “small moments” of the book instead of the plot-heavy moments of the story to show how careful reading leads to intellectual rewards.
  3. A group “crowdsourced” journal entry on my chosen passage. This requires a lot of fast, on-the-spot teacher thinking, as I will call on one student to begin the entry and another student to provide a follow-up sentence.  I like the idea of composing a paragraph in real time under real demands, because it allows me to ask the questions that writers should be asking when they write, like “What more can I say here?” and “Do I have any evidence to explain this idea?”  Later on, I post each class’s journal entry for other students to see and appreciate.  I emphasize that four different classes will have four different readings of the same scene.
  4. Time for individual journal entries on one of our four major ideas.  I invite students to post-it note possible scenes to write about as they read, through I don’t require it and I don’t encourage students to annotate as they read, either.  (Incidentally, my low-stakes approach to post-its has resulted in more student requests for more post-its than I ever thought possible.)  Most students have a scene or two that they want to take ownership of in their own notebooks.  Some students will continue the conversation we had as a whole class in their own notebooks, taking the scene I chose and adding something new to it.
  5. Time to share our thinking at the end of class.

I also post and tracking some of the “greatest hits” ideas, ideas that I know will inspire strong thesis statements once readers finish the book.  By the time students prepare to write an essay, they will have a menu of student-generated thesis statements along with their own thinking about the book to reflect on.

Adapting this teaching to other books.

I was thinking about how I might teach other works using the same approach.  Here’s one thing I’ll say to high school teachers in particular: if you try this, you’ll find yourself making careful decisions about what you really want students to know and what you will let them figure out on their own.   It means letting some “juice” of the book drop and appreciating that you won’t have time to discuss the importance of every reference with every student.

For example, if I were teaching The Great Gatsby, I think I would let readers encounter and interpret the Valley of Ashes and Dr. T.J. Eckleburg on their own.  I would want to instead focus on Nick’s first description of Gatsby as a quasi-Moses figure and the fact that he dropped out of St. Olaf College — small details that lead to powerful and enduring interpretations and ideas.

Some suggested ideas and topics for popular high school books:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  • Civilization
  • Friendship
  • Trust
  • #ownvoices (if you aren’t familiar with this twitter hashtag, look it up!)

The Great Gatsby

  • Sin and Religious Iconography
  • Money

Macbeth

  • Greed
  • Lies/Lying
  • Power
  • Dreams/Reality

How are you using workshop methods and thinking to approach whole class novels?

Amy Estersohn is a middle school English teacher in New York.  When she was in middle school, her favorite authors were William Shakespeare and Meg Cabot.  Follow her on twitter @HMX_MSE

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Recently, I facilitated a readers-writers workshop training with a small team of brilliant teachers in Minneapolis. We shared an inspiring two days together, exploring and discussing how to shift instructional practices to allow for choice, challenge, and the authentic moves readers and writers make as they mature in their craft. In these trainings, I tend to talk a lot about conferring. I think it’s the linchpin that makes all the essential parts of a workshop pedagogy work. (It’s also the thing I still struggle with the most.) Towards the end of our time together, one young teacher said, “Have you tried everything? It sounds like you’ve tried everything.”

Pretty much.

At least it feels like it. I’ve pretty much tried anything and everything I think will help my students want to read and write — and want to improve as readers and writers. (I am still learning. Send me ideas!) And when it comes to conferring with my readers, I’ve tried a lot of things.

One thing I know for sure:  The expectations we set matter — a lot.

When I work with teachers, I get this question often:  How do you confer with readers without causing a distraction?

I don’t. I want to cause a distraction, especially for the one student I’m conferring with at that moment, perhaps for the couple of students sitting near enough to listen into our conversation, maybe for the student across the aisle who needs to know it’s not as scary as she may think to talk to a teacher about a book.

Besides — I may only distract a reader for a moment before I move on to the next reader. Right? And with a class of thirty students, it may take several days to loop back around to distract that reader again.

Sure, I could ask students to come to me — maybe at my desk or at the side of the room or just a step outside the door (I’ve tried all these locations), but scooting up in my rolling chair, or kneeling beside them, at their space seems much more authentic to me — less threatening, more inclusive. In my experience, our conversations are richer when my readers share their space with me.

I know it can be hard to concentrate and read when someone is talking, even in whispers, to someone else a couple of feet away. (I tried reading on a plane yesterday, but the couple next to me kept talking, talking, talking, and I finally took a nap.)

Expectations matter. If we build a culture of reading within our learning communities, where all students know we expect them to read during sacred reading time, and all students expect us to talk to them about their reading lives, every student will come to expect our conferences. It’s part of the overall workshop routine. It’s a huge part of what makes self-selected independent reading work on the daily.

The weight of the distraction just doesn’t come close to the impact of regular one-on-one conversations with our readers.

Note:  This post is a part of a series. It’s based primarily on the most frequent questions about readers-writers workshop asked at our workshop trainings. For more see here.

Amy Rasmussen lives, loves, and teaches in North Texas. She will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall — teaching seniors! This week she is in Chicago at a conference sponsored by The Poetry Foundation. So cool! If you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

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Three Teachers Talk by Mrsturnerblog - 1w ago

Happy Summer, friends!!

By now hopefully you have had some time to recover from the hustle and bustle of the school year. My school has been out for over a month now, but that means that my summer is halfway over! One of the things that is so important for all of us is to find time to recharge over the summer break.

What’s the first thing that you think of when you think about recharging? I think about travel! My husband decided that he’d run a half-marathon along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon this summer, so we made a little fun trip out of it. Amazing! Oh, and while he was busy running around at 7000-8600 ft altitude (crazy man!), I spent about 4 hours reading surrounded by this gorgeous view! Win-win!

But recharging can’t always just be about escaping life, can it? The other thing that I’ve done quite a bit of this summer is getting recharged by doing some professional development that has refreshed my teaching spirit and gotten me excited for the coming school year.

My first experience was as a reader for the AP English Language & Composition course. About 1600 high school and college English teachers spent all week reading about 1000 essays each to score this year’s AP Lang exam. Not only did I learn an incredible amount about this exam and what’s needed to do well on it, I also met some amazing educators from around the country. Think about it–I spent 8 hours a day with people who teach exactly what I teach! Talk about a PLC! We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together, and it didn’t matter if you sat down with a complete stranger because you had tons of things to talk about. Fabulous!

Next up on my summer of recharging was a week at an APSI (Advanced Placement Summer Institute). There are some changes coming in the way AP Lang exams are scored, and I wanted to take advantage of a week of training so that I could best serve my students. When I got approved to travel to this training, I decided to take the training with an instructor who I’ve admired for a couple of years. He’s someone who is in the same Facebook AP group (it’s an amazing group) and I’ve really appreciated the lessons that he shared and the way that he encourages others.

What happens when you go to work with a rockstar? Other rockstars are also drawn to the same place.  My APSI class was a master class of teachers, both experienced at teaching AP Lang and new to it. What an engaging and enriching week! We talked, we modeled instruction, we traded ideas for approaching the material–we did all of that and more!

Teaching can be an incredibly isolating career. Oftentimes it feels like we’re in this alone. This is especially true if you’re in a small school or a small department. For me, the summer is the time that I try to reach out and broaden my horizons. I try to find others who think and work like I do and then I soak up as much learning and experience as I can from those people. It refreshes me and rejuvenates me to go back into the classroom to get ready to help my new crop of kids grow and learn as much as possible.

Whatever you do to recharge this summer–whether it’s traveling or reading or digging into some incredibly PD–I hope that you enjoy your break and come back to the new school year refreshed and engaged and ready to broaden the minds of the young people in your care. If you’re looking for others ideas about professional development, check out this post about doing workshop, this post about finding mentor texts, and this post about great books!

Enjoy your break!

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Being a new teacher at school this past year, I was the recipient of the “new English teacher classroom” that has been passed down for the last two years.  This classroom is located at the far end of the cafeteria, literally in the cafeteria, and came stacked with rows upon rows of forward facing desks, equally spaced in rows, all facing the front.  So industrial revolution-esqe. So not ideal for cultivating a welcoming environment where students to take ownership of their learning by interacting with one another to question and create meaning.

In the hopes of making my corner of the school more welcoming and conducive to English work, I slowly began to create flexible seating areas.  I built this up over the school year, finding more cozy chairs, lights, and touches of home to add, but I will confess: I don’t love my flexible seating classroom.

Isn’t this how we want all students to read in a Book Club?!

Let me explain, as there are pros and cons to everything.

Positives:

  1. Students are pretty chill and calm in class (also see Issues #1).  Students are relaxed because the lights aren’t blazing overhead and the furniture creates a homey vibe.  Students enjoy a break from sitting in the rigid desks that are too small for some or built for right-handed writers.  They also have more space for their books, laptops, and notebooks.
  2. Students can settle into our reading time.  I’m not sure about you, but I don’t read for pleasure at home in a rigid desk, sitting straight up.  I read on the couch settled to my gently snoring dog, or I read in an armchair with my slightly overweight dog, or I read propped up on pillows in my bed with my dog who sprawls out to cover half the space.  While I can’t bring Bounder to work (I wish!), I can create the transference of reading atmosphere from school to home.
  3. Students have a choice over where they sit depending on how they’re feeling or what type of work we are doing.  I had a few students who changed seats every day, and some who stuck with the same place. Sometimes a student would move to a new seat halfway through the class, usually to a desk or table after reading time.  This makes seating charts completely unnecessary and beside the point (woo!). Students also exercise soft skills, like compromise and problem solving, when they negotiate their daily seating choice.
  4. I can easily circulate around the room, accessing each student without having to disturb their neighbors in the tight rows of desks littered with backpacks.  Students also have access to one another.

Issues:

  1. Students are pretty chill and calm in class (also see Positives #1).  Sometimes the siren song of the plush armchair is too much to resist, and even my most engaged students are sucked into a nap.
  2. Students cannot see all of their peer’s faces at one time.  I didn’t realize how much it would annoy me, but I realized that to me, eye contact equals engagement.  Sometimes, this led to group conversations versus whole class conversations, as one side comment turned into a table chat.  While there is less of a “front of the room” as students are not all facing the same direction, this can be an impediment to the building community at times.
  3. While student seating is flexible, room configuration is not. I only have one projector and whiteboard, so there is a distinctive front of my room, which all the chairs have a vantage point of.  I have a collection of regular desks, two large tables with, a small table with chairs, and a living room set up with larger chairs and a coffee table. There isn’t much flexibility for reorganizing the shape of the classroom to support instruction, aside from group work.  Moving the furniture into an inner-outer circle is near impossible, especially given the four minutes between preps or short precious 40 minutes I spend with students.
  4. Creating these flexible spaces costs money out of my budget.  In total, I think I spent a little over $200. I debated–$200 in books for my classroom or $200 to buy old furniture.  I debated, that is a lot of book money, but figured options for seating would help me cultivate a welcoming, comfortable classroom environment.
  5. Students are always jostling for the biggest, most plush chair, which I suppose cuts down on tardies, but also calls for a bit of regulation of the most coveted chair on campus by me.  This guy: 

I learned a lot from this experiment and while room 104 has received a total facelift, there are some kinks to work out.  In the fall, I will set guidelines, not rules, to help form clear expectations for next year for how to navigate our space.  I will encourage students to select a new seat each week, so one group doesn’t always sit around the coffee table and students are mixing the voices they’re hearing.  I will also teach the importance of connection and looking at the speaker. Not doing so creates pods that are isolated versus cohesion as a full group.  I will continue to reserve the right to ask students to make a new or better choice in their seating, as well as use the sections of the classroom to a group and regroup as it best fits instruction.  I will also scour the local Goodwills for smaller tables and different chairs that are both more comfortable and flexible.

Aside from the lack of flexibility in the layout and money borrowed from my book budget, I believe creating a classroom with flexible seating was worth it for students. I adapted the “weird classroom in the cafeteria,” as one junior put it, into a space students feel welcome to breathe and relax a little during the day–there is something about being out of a desk and making a choice.  At the end of the day, if students are happy and like the setup, I can be satisfied with that.

Any flexible seating transition suggestions, guidelines, or ideas?  Please share them!

Maggie Lopez is enjoying summer vacation and hopes all of her teacher friends are doing the same.  You can find her on Twitter @meg_lopez0.

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Join us for a summer series revisiting our top posts from this school year, and please “turn and talk” with us in the comments section each week!

This post from guest writer Amy Menzel struck a chord with readers in 2019. Amy writes here about ‘aha’ moments that strengthened her convictions about choice reading.

I can’t put my book down. I’m (finally) reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I am loving it. I book talked it a week ago and I’m 75 or so pages from finishing. I’m not sure why I didn’t read it before! I’ve book talked it before, so I assume I was so engrossed in another title that this one had to wait. Anyway, I’m already anticipating a serious book hangover upon finishing.

As I crawled into bed and turned on my reading light last night, I had two lightbulb moments. In addition to the obvious one, there was the realization that I am not rereading a book for the eleventy-seventh time this year. In fact, I haven’t reread an entire book for the past two years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But there may be something misguided about an English teacher focusing all her efforts on teaching the same few books year after year.

I spent nearly the first decade of my high school teaching career doing just that. I could still deliver a solid lesson on To Kill a MockingbirdFahrenheit 451The Great Gatsby, or The Kite Runner at a moment’s notice. Give me an hour or so to prep and I could review layers upon layers of annotations in my personal copies of each and make a solid lesson a good one. But I’ve been there and done that. Sure, I found new insight with each reread, but I don’t think enough to warrant the time it took. I’m not convinced my lessons got that much better from year to year, despite my thoughtful (and time-consuming) planning and preparation. And, really, that shouldn’t surprise me.

Writer Haruki Murakami once tweeted, “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” And, there I was, only reading the books that I had read, and only thinking what I had thought. I mean, I added related readings to ever-expanding text sets and used new pedagogical practices, but I was basically the academic equivalent of a Taco Bell drive-thru. It was all the same stuff just packaged differently.

That’s no way to live. It’s no way to grow.

I see my job as an English teacher much differently now than I did as an eager newbie. I’m still eager, alright, but I also have this sense of urgency. Part of it is that I teach seniors now. And second semester Senior English is basically the pressure cooker of secondary education.* I have 90 days to help students identify as readers. Let me tell you, it’s not going to happen with a traditional approach. At best, a traditional approach might convince them that reading is “not that bad” as they grind their way through a couple assigned books (or the SparkNotes of a couple assigned books) that they may or may not find all that engaging. I’m striving for more than that.

I don’t have a lot of time with these young scholars and there’s no time to waste. It’s time they find books that intrigue them, inspire them, and challenge them. It’s time they find books they actually want and will read. And it’s really important that we shift to students finding their own texts. “Real world” readers don’t read because some lady named Mrs. Menzel tells them they should. They read because they find books that speak to them. Of course, I’m here to help. I book talk a new title every single day. I make it my job to play nerdy cupid and match the right title with the right reader. It all takes a lot of time. But not more time. I’ve simply reallocated my time. I don’t spend hours rereading the same books and turning last year’s burritos into this year’s enchiladas. Instead, I read. For real. I read a lot. I read books I want to read and books recommended by librarians and students. I read novels and nonfiction and graphic memoirs and collections of poetry. I read magazine and newspaper articles and blog posts and lyrics and scripts and transcripts. And I share what I read. And I ask students to share what they read. And we talk about it and we write about it.

my book board, featuring all the title’s I’ve book talked this year so far

And I’m finally living a reading life I want my students to follow.

(And look at them follow!)

*I’m pretty certain this analogy checks out. It sounds good. Truth be told, I’m much more Taco Bell than I am pressure cooker kinda person in the nonliterary, culinary sense.

Amy Menzel finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close nearly seven books ago. She just got around to revising and submitting this guest post because teaching. She knows you understand. You might also understand why she’s contemplating spending $20 on this “SAVE THE WORD TACOS” t-shirt. She hopes you have a great end of year and a fantastic, restful summer filled with great reads.

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