Tag Archives: literacy

Rereading My High School Classics: Killing Mr. Griffin

I received this amazing grant from Penny Kittle’s Book Love Foundation, allowing me to stock my classroom library with an awe-inspiring number of books my kids will actually enjoy reading. While perusing the catalogue, I noticed that Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin was among the options. KMG is one of those books that evokes an instant reaction for me: flashback to early high school (or maybe late middle school). I was a binge reader, so I probably was in the process of reading every book Duncan had ever written by that point. I was most likely splayed out on my bed while my grandmother was most likely telling me to do something (most likely to wash the dishes or pour the food up after dinner) and I was unable to tear myself away from the book. I passed much of my youth like that.

During this particular time of year, when life threatens to speed up and have its way with me, I start to read for comfort as a way to reorient

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Killing Mr. Griffin: Nearly As Good Now as It Was Then

myself. This type of reading is my self-care, I reckon. I might reread a book or two that I’ve enjoyed (cue Tiny, Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed), a lot of young adult literature, some poetry…I don’t want to veer too far outside of the familiar because I need a place to stand (or read, if you will), that is comforting. That’s why I wanted to reread KMG. Would time stand still the same way? Would I feel those little creepy thrills at the mystery? Would I be as enmeshed with a text in the ways I was when I was a teenager?

Essentially, yes. The quick premise of the book: Mr. Griffin is a high school English teacher who pushes his students to be excellent. He doesn’t take late work, doesn’t accept mediocrity, insists that students think critically. Wait. Am I Mr. Griffin?! I hope not, because four particular students decide to play a prank on him and scare Mr. Griffin into becoming a nicer teacher. Of course, given that Duncan wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer, this intention was going to go awry, and it did. The kids kill Mr. Griffin.

I’m relatively sure that when I read it as a teenager, I would have been all caught up in the social structure of the killer kids: they lure in a nerdy junior (the majority of them are seniors), they make her feel that she belongs, they complain about the teacher being too demanding. I would have totally gotten behind their cause (well, up to a point), allowing myself to get caught up with the momentum of the story. I would not have paid any attention to Duncan’s attempts at Mr. Griffin’s backstory, choosing instead to consume myself with how Murder Inc. was going to either hold or fold as more people began to find out what they’d done. I did feel some anxiety at moments around the actions of the one kid at the center who orchestrated everything. But, yeah. I would have spent all night reading it, going back to wherever I got that book the next day (be that the public library if it were a Saturday or the Thrifty Bookworm if I could get a ride there to trade it in) to keep reading something along those lines.

Fast forward to nearly 25 years later. Here’s what I noticed reading KMG this time:

  • Lois Duncan had some great lines of prose, particularly when it came to description. A line I wrote down to use as a mentor sentence: Susan turned to see David Ruggles running toward her, the slightness and delicacy of his bone structure giving him the framework of a kite with his blue Windbreaker billowing out beneath his arms, the wind seeming to lift and carry him (3).
  • All I could think about this time was how similar my teaching philosophy was to Mr. Griffin and how, IRL, if you’re a tough teacher, you’re often not considered a “good” teacher by students until years down the road. I also thought it was so sad that he truly loved his students and working with them and all they were concerned about was their grades. So, they killed him. Yipes. And he and his wife were expecting a baby?! NOPE.
  • I was less forgiving of plot holes. Characters came and went, then reappeared (or didn’t) with little rhyme or reason. Again, I notice this now but then? Such discrepancies wouldn’t have bothered me much. I was also not satisfied with the (relatively) tidy ending.
  • There are some fantastic allusions to Macbeth (the Murder Inc. kids make a reference to the line about the old man “having so much blood in him”) and there are several to Hamlet. The English teacher in me cheered.

In sum: Grade then: A; Grade now: B+

Reading one of my classics was a delightful experience. While I’m sad about how things ended for Mr. Griffin, I do think the experience of reading the book was as positive now as it was then. I also have had a series of great conversations with colleagues about rereading the books that mattered to them as young people and if they held up to our grown up eyes. Wouldn’t that be a wonder to share with our students? But, oh, it was simply joyful to sit in a restaurant this afternoon and read, and read, and read and not care what time it was, or who needed me. For those moments, it was me and my book. And that was all that mattered.

 

 

 

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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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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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Why Am I Exhausted? Oh Wait, I’m Teaching Huck Finn…

When I decided to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to my sophomores, I decided to for several reasons, many of them about the importance of the text as “American” (whatever that means), and also because the character Jim presents all sorts of conundrums. I also wanted them to come to their own conclusions about whether the text should be taught in classrooms (the culminating debate for the text). That Huck can’t quite resolve the conflict between his conscience and his heart is just as compelling, and, while at the center of the novel, there are numerous other angles that also provide interesting moments of analysis.

I also remembered when I taught the text a couple of years ago that I was absolutely worn out once we got done with the book. With the last 12 chapters to go, I’m feeling that same way, and have been thinking about why.

The additional layer that often gets overlooked in these discussions about appropriateness, N-words and the rest is how much background knowledge you have to build for kids AND how much correcting of historical inaccuracies you also have to resolve. Students are as naive as Huck when it comes to thinking about Jim, and–this is where I understand why I have to teach this text and be on my game every single time I work with the kids–they will remain that way unless you help them think of him otherwise.

They want to call Jim illiterate. They want to say that he’s not “smart”. They want to think him illogical. They also have questions about enslaved Africans: would Jim have known his family in Africa? They ask with a genuine interest.

They also think they know everything about slavery because they saw Django Unchained.

I want to pass out, but I can’t.

I have been building text sets out of necessity (ah, the mother of invention) to give them a broader understanding of the lives of enslaved Africans. I’ve shown clips from Skip Gates’ newest documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross which talks about slavery and fugitive slave laws (and if you don’t cry when you watch the story of Margaret Garner, well, then…), pulled from slave narratives, Frederick Douglass, historical documents, etc.

I am cobbling together supplemental texts as quickly as I can, which is fine. It’s just…frustrating and disheartening and, yes, exhausting. Teaching HF is fraught with my own internal conflicts: is it worth reading a text that potentially takes so much out of me emotionally, through analyzing Huck’s conflict amidst the historical setting and contradictions? Is it worth having to correct so many plain-wrong misunderstandings about enslaved Africans, about romanticized notions of slavery, of fighting to help them see Jim as a person (before that all goes to hell when they reach Phelps’ farm)?

I would say yes, though I’m uneasy.

I think, too, that I’ve come to the point that I think this text should be taught as interdisciplinary, with a History teacher who can set to rights the wrongs that kids have internalized. And I’m not putting this work off on a History teacher; rather, I simply think that the more kids have the opportunity to learn counternarratives, and apply them to texts to broaden or correct their (mis)understandings, the better critical thinkers, writers and people they can become.

Because the struggle is so real right now, and I have never been happier to know that tomorrow is the weekend and I can shore up my own courage before returning down the Mississippi River with them on Monday.

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Finding My Way Back to YA Lit: Aristotle & Dante

The best measure for me to determine if I’m reading a book that is weighty and meaningful (and please keep in mind that these terms hold various currency at different times in my life, dependent on what I’m supposed to be doing or attempting to ignore) is if I’m unafraid to read and cry on the subway.

I’ve read several titles that had me weeping, furtively wiping my eyes, wearing my sunglasses UNDERGROUND because I was overcome with something emotional about a text. I admit that I hope people don’t think I’m insane, but, when a book takes you, you don’t really quite care enough about what people might say. All that matters is, well, the book.

In this frenzied summer of teaching writing with high schoolers and literacy to preservice and new teachers, I have also been attempting to help all of them broaden their understandings of what it means to read and write. The teachers participate in a book club in hopes of remembering what real readers do (funny, they tend to want to impose all of these arcane rules on students that they would never do to themselves. I constantly remind them that, if they don’t want to complete particular activities after doing something,  then students don’t want to either). Given that the class is a mix of elementary, middle and high school teachers, of all subjects (no comment on how much of a challenge this is, but I will say that thoughtful, flexible groupings make everything better), I provided a list of books along the grade-level spectrum.

One of them was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Now, as much as this is a young adult novel about two Latino young men discovering who they are, falling in love, and being loved by such wonderful parents (oh, I wanted their parents to be my parents or to be parents of kids I taught, or just, I don’t know, hang out with them or go bowling or just be in the same room with them…) it is equally as much a book about literacy. The boys read to each other, share poetry, draw, write letters…I wonder if this is caused because the setting is late 1980s El Paso, Texas and how much things would probably be different (I had a moment when I wondered, why don’t they just text, which sent me rereading for the actual year), but I am so grateful that this novel is set in the time before technology changed everything.

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Aristotle & Dante: Two kids you should get to know

This, too, is a story about boys who love each other. Machismo aside, they cry, they hug, they are true to each other. While one boy’s father is struggling to be demonstrative with his love around his son, the other boy’s father is loving, gentle, kind in ways that encourage his peer to do the same.

It’s a wonderful model for what friendship might mean between two boys who love each other on multiple levels, and who want to be who they are within and without the confines of societal expectations, regional (mis)understandings, and, for lack of a better word, the universe. Don’t we need such nuanced stories, particularly when it’s so easy to think of young men as hard, as uncaring, as ones who definitely don’t cry?

Now, I’m back on the YA lit train and I can’t get enough of it. It’s been years since I really was able to immerse myself in the genre. It’s so well-written, so evocative, so important for young adults and the folks who try to understand them and who value them.

I’m ordering a few copies of Aristotle and Dante (side note: and I’m also happy the Printz award committee selected this book–let’s hear it for diversity!!) and I can’t wait for kids to say to me, “Dr. P, can you believe it when…?” and I’ll nod, and we’ll dig in to those conversations about loving texts, and young folks who figure it out, and who we love as much as if they were real people, too.

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Dipping My Toes into the Waters of Academe

I was conflicted while completing my Ph.D. and haven’t necessarily resolved the issue: how do I live a life as a teacher and as an academic? And, because I hate conflict, I took the easier (?) track of being a classroom teacher rather than a professor.

Some of that decision was easy: I didn’t have many academic leads, and I didn’t really invest a lot of time and energy into finding an academic job. In my mind, becoming an academic meant sacrificing in ways I’m not really willing to do: giving up all joy for seven years to run on a wheel, publish, publish, publish…

My attention span is barely longer than the adolescents I teach at times, so I let those excuses suffice and remained in the classroom. Don’t get me wrong. I love teaching; otherwise, I wouldn’t do it. Seriously.

Now, however, I have the opportunity this year to teach a couple of graduate classes to preservice teachers at a local small, private, liberal arts college and, dare I say, I’m excited?! My excitement manifests itself as planning: lots of lists (with highlighted items to mark importance), notes, bullet points that double as aspirations, multiple revisions upon revisions of a syllabus, running through simulation of classes in the middle of the night (I’m weird like that; don’t judge me).

A completely unexpected reaction, frankly. I thought this decision would be attended by hesitancy, by doubt, but that isn’t the story.

Maybe it’s time for me to think about working the hypen: teacher-academic. I could get used to that…and in the meantime, as I try this on for size, I’ll be working out the daily pressures of theory and practice. How else am I going to be able to talk about (or not talk about) kids and literacy and teaching without commenting on what happened/happens in real time?

We’ll see if it works. If this dip is positive enough, maybe I’ll go wading.

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