Category Archives: Literacy

What Happened When We Asked Students to Think: Conclusions

Reading student reflections is always my favorite part of anything I plan. There, if we’ve done it at all well, they will reveal what they really think, what they learned (or didn’t), and offer any suggestions for future instruction. This process of asking for feedback and reflection is amazingly useful and quite humbling. It’s also thrilling. Thus, when I sat down to read through the student reflections of what they’d learned through the messy process of growth mindset (part one is described here and part two is described here) and design thinking, here are some snippets of what they said:

Question: Why do you think this assignment asked you to think of a problem and design a solution?

They said: “Maybe because people want to know what kind of ideas we might have.” “To tell people nothing is impossible, there’s a solution for every problem.” “…there are always problems in this world and to design a solution can help us learn to think of a problem then solve it.” “…because Dr. Parker wanted to know/see what we’re capable of.” “Because we as students might want a change in the high school.”

Question: What risks did you take to move your project forward? What did you try that you weren’t certain about at first? What were the results?

They said:”We repealed our skit in order to move forward”…”We took a risk when we started designing our prototype. We weren’t certain about the drawing of the brain. The result of the drawing turned out to be good.” “The biggest risk was changing of topics because if we did that we’d have to start back at square one again with the very little time we had left. But it turned out all right in the end.” “I wasn’t sure that this idea will work because it seems a bit too far fetched. Like not many teachers and staff in the school may agree with the idea of naptime.” “We tried to use a soft poster, like a thin one and it got destroyed and it resulted to us having a really good poster board.” [Note: ALL students remarked that their results were satisfactory because they made changes. That’s a big deal!]

Question: What did you learn about yourself through this activity?

They said: “I learned that I need to have a positive growth mindset at all time and not everything that’s impossible unless you actually try.” “I can be creative if I want to be and I want to be able to use my creativity through everything I do.” “I like solving problems.” “I can have a lot of potential if I focus more.” “I learned how to manage my time.”

As I look at these responses a few months after the project, I’m gently reminded that, while I felt this project was disorganized and I was one step ahead of my students, they learned a tremendous amount. Specifically, they learned how to collaborate, how to think of something that mattered to them and try to change it, how to take pride in their work, how to present their ideas to an authentic audience.

Since that project, we’ve moved on to other pursuits, but we keep the throughlines of the growth mindset work with us. [Note: it’s important, too, to consider what Carol Dweck has said about how the growth mindset understandings can be used incorrectly with young people. She’s right. We are all combinations of growth and fixed mindsets. It’s situation-dependent. We are all works in progress, and that is not a bad thing.] Students will occasionally challenge each other to “GROW!” which I find hilarious, especially as those words come when we are doing something hard. Kids want more of this type of work, work that matters, work that is real, work that encourages them to push against their own boundaries and, indeed, to grow. 

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Every Now and Then: When Students Write for Us

I’m trying to write a grant for more books for my classroom library. The application asks for two references. For awards like this, where the grantors are actual educators, I try to have actual students write those letters. I am never, ever disappointed. I asked a current student and one I had a couple of years ago. They complied instantly.

Some excerpts from the current student. This first one is a bit long, but it is so, so good:

On the first day of class, Dr. Parker told us to answer a question: “What does it mean to read powerfully for you?” Never before had I critically thought about what it meant to read powerfully. To me, reading was just reading. Nevertheless, as I thought more and more about it, I was able to develop an answer. Reading powerfully involves an equilibrium of two different things, the heart and the brain. The passion and the imagination. The emotion and the understanding. For me, I am not able to read powerfully if I do not use both my heart and my brain. I can read with just my brain, and absorb the information but not actually feel or make any valid connections with the text. As a result, I tend to not really remember or walk away with much. I can also read with just my heart, and feel the text but not actually understand it on another level. As a result, I tend to never remember the text and walk away emotional. However, when I read to both feel and to understand, then I walk away with a much more interactive experience with the text, with more knowledge. I walk away as a powerful reader. To be completely honest, I wouldn’t have learned any of that if it were not for Dr. Parker asking the tough questions and getting our reader juices flowing. It was at this moment that I learned that my reading habits would be challenged (since she asked a challenging question) and that I would finally develop into becoming a better reader and consequently, writer.

And her conclusion:

Nevertheless, I think that what could make me and the rest of the community better readers is access to more books. When I was younger, I’d always ask my parents for books rather than clothes or anything else. The reasoning behind my thinking was that a book contains everlasting knowledge. A book is a trip you pay for once, but can always go back again free of cost. Books are what allow those who are underprivileged the opportunity to catch up to those who are.  Books are the keys to a gateway of knowledge. When you get young people to read, you give them everlasting knowledge. You allow them to travel the world (and elsewhere) and gain a variety of different perspectives. Not only that, but books allow young people to engage in conversations with adults and bridge a gap that exists between us and them. One thing that I appreciate about Dr. Parker is that she uses books as a way to help us jump start conversations among ourselves and with her. Furthermore, when we are challenged to read books that are well written and difficult, the knowledge we gain influences our writing. Dr. Parker tends to remind us that one of the only ways we can become better writers is if we become better readers. So, if we have more books to read, than we can read more, and if we read more, we probably will become better at reading (practice makes permanent). If we result in better readers, than our writing will be out of this world. Not only that, but as we read, we grow (or at least I do). When we grow and read more books that vary and gain different perspectives, we learn to be more loving of one another (at the very least, accepting). Books create a community of love and knowledge. I know that Dr. Parker has already started doing this in our class, but with more books, she will expand this community of love and knowledge. The beauty of this expansion is whether we realize it or not, is that we all end up falling in love with reading. And a world of powerful readers is better than a world without readers, is it not?

[Note: my first reaction to this beautifully written letter was to cry. At my desk. In front of the kids. Since having a baby, I’m not afraid to be vulnerable. Seriously? To write like this and to be only a sophomore?…]

Letters like this are why we need to ask students to write letters of recommendation for us every now and then. Because when they have the opportunity to articulate what we do every day, what seems so abstract suddenly comes into focus. Often I work with young people and I hope that they know how much reading matters, how much literacy matters, how much I need it to matter. Then, when they write, I know for sure.

Who knows if I’ll get the grant. Doesn’t seem like that’s the most important part of this project anymore. What makes it matter right now is that for this young person, I have made my classroom a space where literacy has created some wonderful experiences. Where reading can humanize us. That reading can make us more loving is perhaps the greatest sentence ever written. I think she is on to something.

Simply because I asked her to write for me.

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Guest Post #2 for MA Literacy: Diverse Books for Middle School Readers

I’m guest blogging for Mass Literacy. Check out my second post: Diverse Books for Middle School Readers if you’re looking for some great reads for that audience. Stay tuned for Post #3: Diverse Books for High School Readers in the coming weeks.

Post #1: Why We Need Diverse Books

Happy reading!

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All the Things We Never Tell Them

With the start of a new semester, I have a new group of students and I’m teaching seniors for the first time in what feels like a decade, but is probably closer to five years. I’m struck by a few things that I’ve been turning around in my mind since meeting them:

  • Students who write amazing poetry, for whom I scrawl a question on the top of their paper: Have you ever considered submitting your writing to the Lit Mag? Can I hold on to this as a student exemplar? They respond: “No one’s ever told me I should do that” or “You think my work is that good?” [full disclosure, our literary magazine is only a couple of years old, but I think you know what I mean when I’m asking if they’ve ever thought of sharing their work with a broader audience]
  • Students who are from all different African countries, who look at me with disbelief when I insist that yes, there are authors from Ethiopia (in this particular case), and she only believes me when I pull out a few books from different Ethiopian authors
  • Students who have bought into the belief that they need to attend a four-year college, yet their skills are so low that they are going to have to take developmental classes in college, which will count for nothing, and thereby increase the odds that they will not complete any sort of degree, yet they assume the fault for this is all their own (maybe I was only half-kidding when I said they should ask for a return on their investment of education given these probabilities)
  • Students who are nice, congenial kids, who I’m sure that, in our tracked classes, have been the ones who dutifully complete their assignments without question, who were most likely never recommended to take an upper level class, where I suspect they would have done just fine

I am trying to be hopeful and trying to work as hard as I can in our time that remains, but I find myself with so many more questions than answers, and so much anger about a system that has simply set these kids up for what? When we gather every day, and they are hopeful, and they are reading, and they are owning their part of everything (for not completing all of their work, or not understanding something, or not writing something down when I’m sure that, in my haste to get to the next thing I’ve probably not explained it as best as I could), I silently panic that we are going to run out of time. Seriously, it’s like we are at the mile 2 of a 26.2 marathon that they have to run tomorrow. 

Thus, my lessons are all about practical knowledge: learning how to read for understanding with dense texts, how to structure an argument, awareness of audience, how to write a business letter, a thank you note, a resume, and envelope, even and sprinkling that with literature of various types. They are not all going to a two- or four-year college; it’s best that I make sure all have skills that they will need.

With about three months remaining, I’m going to throw everything I have at this situation in hopes of at least giving them a chance to make their way in the world. I won’t tell them that I can work miracles, because I cannot, but I will tell them, as I told them yesterday, if they give me a good faith effort, they will be better when they finish than when they started.

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Guest Blogging for MA Literacy

Photo: MA Literacy

I’m doing a few guest posts about why we need diverse books for the wonderful Mass Literacy, the foundation that named me one of five literacy champions last year.

Read my first post, Why We Need Diverse Books, here. Stay tuned for future posts about books for middle school and high school readers. Also, feel free to check the previous post where I’m tallying my progress towards reading 100 Diverse Books in 2015. Still time for you to join me!

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Turn UP for Reading

Finally, I get the schedule I want: all College Prep classes. In these classes, you’ll find mostly students of color, kids from low SES, all the other kids who are underserved by public education today.

Seriously: I’ve wanted this schedule since I began teaching at this school. I have had the most success and the most enjoyment from teaching from working with this population during my career. Don’t get me wrong: it’s always the hardest work to do on all sorts of fronts, but, usually, it seems that the work matters most here.

I began the year by reiterating what college prep is: that the expectation is that students will GO TO COLLEGE. Thus, they need to be able to read and write well. When I said that the first time, I’m pretty sure I heard a student whisper to another “this isn’t Honors,” and I took the opportunity to say: l tend to teach all my classes the same, from grad students to them. That expectation is loosely true: work really hard, do your best, and you end up okay. I scaffold and help kids who need it, but I teach my CP class just like it’s an Honors class, more or less. If we can by joyful during the majority of the time while doing the work? Well, that’s incredible, too.

I knew I had to get kids reading as soon as possible. I caused a huge amount of controversy by asking for a cart from our school’s library for my classroom–apparently that’s not a policy the school adheres to. So, just when I had kids HOOKED on books, I had to take the cart away. I have always maintained a classroom library of hundreds of books (usually around 500, give or take the ones the kids don’t return), but the last time I was in an under-resourced school, I donated ALL of my books. And I have a good-sized high-interest library at home, but I am now at the point where I use those books for PD and other events, so I try not to bring them to school. That resolve didn’t last long at all once I got the kibosh on the library cart. Now, I’m in a frenzy of applying for grants (and don’t get me started on how much money our school district spends per kid…) so I can buy enough books to sustain my classroom library. UGH.

What cannot be overlooked, however, is that THE KIDS ARE READING BOOKS!! Yes, lots of books. 12. That’s the completely arbitrary number I came up with and told my students that they needed to read that number of books in addition to our whole-class texts. Why not set a big, hairy audacious goal? I mean, geez, what do we have to lose? Even if they come nowhere near close to 12, they’re going to read something because I’m going to make sure of it. Seriously. And we are going to have a huge party at semester’s end where we do, indeed, turn up for reading. Reluctant readers are my jam. I’ve worked with them for years, so their lines of “I haven’t read a book in years,” or “I don’t read,” or “there’s no book I like,” is sort of like music to my ears.

Gauntlet thrown.

Once they say those lines, I get busy. While there are so many great books out there, I think we tend to forget the old reliable, tried and true ones: Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper, First Part Last by Angela Johnson…I’m not going to list them all, but I might try to put some ones at the end of this post just in case folks are wondering. What is important to note is that there are books out there for every single kid. You just have to get the books into their hands. Which means, too, that, as teacher, you have to become THE BOOK PERSON. That is both a great honor and a daunting one because it’s all I can do to stay one step ahead of them.

I’m now consumed with the idea of Reading Ladders: I want to get students to increase the complexity of the texts they read. The idea is that each book they read should be just a bit harder. The thing is, with kids who aren’t big readers, every rung has to be just right, because they’re quite fragile, these young people. If it’s too hard, they’ll quit. Not interesting enough. Done. Boring? Kiss of death. And just when I might hope we’d get some momentum going? We have to begin again. And, as I tell them often when they’re on my nerves: we don’t have time to waste, particularly when we’re trying to make years of gains in a semester.

How do I pick the rungs on the ladders? While students read during our daily self-selected reading time (20 mins. every day), I conference with 3-4 students, working my way around the class every two weeks. I conduct a Status of the Class conference before reading time begins and students report the page they’re on. I can coax, praise, ask questions during that time. If a student isn’t making enough forward progress, I make a point to chat with them during the conference to figure out what the problem is. Students are also required to read at least 20 minutes outside of class daily. I’m trying to get them to develop a habit. 20 minutes of their own teenager time is HARD to devote at the beginning. We talk about how we can get to 20: 5 here, 10 there, 5 more…reading on the bus, trying to read before bed, between technology time…I am relentless in turning my classroom into a literacy community as quickly as possible. I have a wall as they walk out entitled “Reading Suggestions.” I read a lot and I also read a lot about books, so if there’s something I think a student will like (based on reading surveys and conversations), I put their name on a Post-It with the book suggestion (my life is written on so many Post-Its in my classroom). I model reading, which is sometimes hard and sometimes easy. I got caught up in this chick lit book, Big Little Lies, that was on a 2-week loan from the library. It was SO GOOD that I extended reading time a couple of times so I could read. I told the kids that I even put my son to bed a half hour early so I could finish the book. They loved it!

It was a true story. Couldn’t put the book down. I also remembered how fun it is to be caught up in a book, where all you want to do is read, not be disturbed, slow down so it doesn’t end.

All kids need that feeling. And the ones I have this semester are starting to feel it. With the exception of 5 or 6, all the rest have finished at least one book already, and many are on to their second or third. We have momentum. I am terrified about what is going to happen once we begin a whole-class text study, but I have some ideas about how to approach it (and I’ll write about those, too). I am also worried about how I’m going to come up with books and how I’ll find time to write the grants I need to write…

For now, though, the books are in the kids’ hands and they are READING. And there is so much right in that.

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